Listless Ridley can’t keep up with Conestoga

RIDLEY TWP. >> As Peter Jean tip-toed down the sidelines at Ridley High School 29 seconds before the halftime buzzer sounded, he felt more than just the breeze whistling by and the remnants of a pop-up rainstorm.

“It sucked the wind right out of them,” the Conestoga senior said of his 55-yard punt return touchdown.

A second-half blanking that fed a 41-14 win for the visiting Pioneers couldn’t argue against Jean’s perception. In most facets of the game, Conestoga (5-5, 4-4 Central League) was comprehensively better than Ridley, including — trite as it sounds — in the desire category.

“I do feel like we wanted it more,” Conestoga quarterback Tim Miller said. “If you were at our practices all week and you saw how we talked as seniors and you saw the emotion we had, giving our senior speeches last night, you would know how badly we wanted this.”

Jean’s last-minute score sent the teams to the break separated by two scores at 28-14. But by the time Ridley touched the ball in the second half, the margin stood at 35-14, thanks to a methodical 12-play, seven-minute drive capped by the third of Corey Manning’s four rushing touchdowns.

Add in five Ridley turnovers, including three Cade Stratton interceptions, and 11 penalties stepping off 109 yards, and there was little chance of the Raiders (6-4, 4-4) mounting a comeback.

“It wasn’t that it was deflating, it’s just that we were out of the game,” wide receiver/defensive back Gene Gibbons said. “We weren’t focused the whole entire time. … I just think we weren’t in the mindset to recover.”

With no playoffs ramifications on the line, it came to a matter of perspective. Conestoga has endured a rough season. The Pioneers had just four home games, thanks to this contest being moved to Ridley after the teams swapped sites last year due to construction delays at Ridley. They navigated a difficult schedule admirably: All four league losses were to teams ahead of them in the Central standings, and their five total losses came by a combined 25 points.

Those disappointments stomached, Friday was about salvaging some consolation and proving what the Pioneers steadfastly believed, that they were better than the numbers indicated.

“What we said before the game in the locker room is, ‘we’re not losers. The seniors aren’t going to go out of their football career being losers,’” said Miller, one of 23 seniors. “That’s what we preached. We demanded the victory from the team, and everybody stepped up to get it done.”

The leaders delivered. Manning carried the ball 31 times and collected four scores. Miller, a Richmond baseball commit, hit on eight of his first 10 passes, finding six receivers for 128 yards. He also plunged in from a yard out three minutes into the game, allowing the Pioneers to cash in on John Locantore’s interception of Stratton on the first offensive snap.

“You play knowing that you’re better than your record,” Miller said. “You play knowing that you could’ve beaten those teams, but things didn’t go our way. The only way you can let it affect you is to let it drive you because you know you’re better than your opponent.”

Ridley, meanwhile, got nothing done after halftime. Stratton snuck in from the two late in the first quarter, and he hit Nadir Forney with a 44-yard bomb midway through the second to bring the teams level at 14.

But Conestoga followed with the game’s final four scores.

Stratton tossed for 135 yards and ran for a team-high 43, but that was the extent of the positives. Malik Young was bottled up to 42 yards on eight carries, and while Gibbons had three catches for 45 yards, the Green Raiders rushed for a paltry 97 yards.

After the Pioneers’ first drive stifled any remnants of hope the Green Raiders had, they looked listless, committing four second-half turnovers. Even when Gibbons picked Miller at the 3 to prevent another Pioneers’ drive from hitting paydirt, a penalty negated a return to midfield. Three plays later, Stratton coughed up the ball, stripped by Daquan Perry for Dima Ackerman to recover, leading to Manning’s game-sealing 24-yard touchdown that seemed more a formality than anything.

“End our career as winners against a team that we love playing,” Jean said. “Everyone thought we beat them the last two years because we played them at home. But we proved that we’re better than Ridley, because we beat them at their house.”

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