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Meyer’s kick sends Archbishop Wood past Gateway in PIAA-5A semifinal battle

ALTOONA >> Robert Meyer had a pretty eventful 24 hours.

The Archbishop Wood senior kicker, one of three triplets, saw one brother go to the ER on Thursday night, stayed overnight with his teammates in Altoona, missed a field goal and got iced twice by Gateway with seven seconds left in the state semifinals. All that served to set the stage for Meyer, all 5-foot-5 of him, to have his moment late Friday evening.

Meyer’s 25-yard field goal with three seconds left was the winning margin as the Vikings topped Gateway 24-21 in the PIAA 5A semifinals at Altoona’s Mansion Park Stadium.

“I hit those all day in practice, I practice at it every day and I know I’m going to hit that,” Meyer said. “You just have to stay focused and hit it through the uprights.”

Meyer’s path to Wood kicker is not a usual one. A skilled soccer player, Meyer wanted to try his hand, well more accurately foot, at football and with the urging of his grandfather Robert and some family friends, went out for the team as a junior. The elder Robert, as he has been all season, was seated front row in the stands.

He’s still a soccer player, but only plays for his club team and spent last year as an understudy to Wood kicker Bobby Hennessey who was also a highly skilled soccer player. Earlier in the game, Meyer had missed a possible go-ahead 40-yard field goal but wanted another chance at it.

“I thought it could come down to me, especially after the 40-yard miss, I really wanted to get back out there,” Meyer said. “I saw a chance to make up for it, so I started preparing on the sideline with my net and my holder, Matt Brown.”

Getting Meyer another chance required Wood’s offense to do something it hadn’t done almost all of the second half and put a drive together. The senior’s kick was the only Vikings score after halftime after Wood took a 21-14 lead into the break.

After an ugly start to the game, which featured among other things a blocked punt, two botched screen passes and three fumbles, Wood (10-3) took the lead first on a 73-yard run by Kaelin Costello. Costello would go on to have a massive night on the ground and add a second long TD run later in the half.

“The line opened a huge hole and I just hit it both times, it was all them,” Costello said. “I’m not taking the credit or anything, it was all then.

“It’s an amazing feeling, you’re just trying not to get caught so you’re running as fast as you can. When you get a long run like that, it’s great.”

Gateway, which played without its standout junior Derrick Davis due to injury, came back to take a 14-7 lead through the air. The Gators used their size and speed at receiver, plus a strong screen game, to test Wood’s defensive unit all game.

Backed up to their own five, the Vikings handed to Costello and 95 yards later, he was gone untouched into the endzone for a 95-yard game-tying score.

“You get him a little creases and he’s gone, he’s quick as anything,” Wood senior Dom D’Alessio, the left tackle, said. “Running behind him watching as he takes off, it’s just so exciting.”

Max Keller found Cardel Pigford on a well-thrown 22-yard pass to put Wood up 21-14 with :36 seconds left in the first half.

Wood’s defense then ended the first half with a message as D’Alessio hit Gators quarterback Bryson Venanzio on a strip-sack and Shane Collier followed with another forced fumble and eventual recovery. It was a statement from a unit that put a lot of pressure on Gateway in the first half and would have to again in the second.

“I knew coming in from film study they love to pass the ball and rushing the quarterback is what I love to do,” D’Alessio said. “Whenever I get the chance, I’m all-out coming for him.”

D’Alessio and Venanzio got to know each other a lot on Friday as the Wood senior sacked the Gators quarterback four times in the first half, part of a seven-sack effort for the Vikings defense. While Wood’s offense couldn’t get anything going in the third quarter, accruing negative yardage on its two drives, the defense held its ground.

Two Gateway drives ended with nothing when the Vikings forced and recovered fumbles and while the Gators would eventually score to tie the game, the touchdown came with 38 seconds left in the frame.

“We love each other and stick together and we’ve always known the defense is a strong point on this team,” D’Alessio said. “We come to practice every day and work hard and it showed out here that defense always sticks together. We believe we’re one of the best defenses around, once a big play happens, momentum is on our side and it feels like the game is going our way.”

Costello added a big special teams play to his night when he forced and recovered a fumble after a Vikings punt, but that drive ended with Meyer’s missed field goal. The junior speedster toted the ball 29 times for 272 yards while Wood rushed for 297 yards as a team.

The defense had to make one more stop. Gateway temporarily stifled Wood’s ferocious pass rush by throwing a bevy of screen passes that, coupled with a pass interference flag that took the Gators down to the Wood 26.

A flag moved Gateway the wrong way before a sack backed the Gators up six more yards, then the Vikings blew up two screen passes to force a punt. Wood took over on its own 22-yard line with 3:54 left in the game.

“I think we just wanted it more than them,” Costello said. “We dug down deep in our hearts and remembered everything we put in since January. It came out on the field and we drove right down the field and got a field goal.”

Costello did most of the heavy lifting on the drive, including a key five-yard gain on a third down at the Gators’ 35. The key play in the drive however, came from the legs of Keller who picked up 16 yards on a third down to bring up a first-and-goal and allowed Wood to set up the field goal.

“Coach Kyle (Adkins) was stressing ‘get five yards and we’re going to Hershey,’” Costello said. “It was a zone-read, I told Max ‘watch out for the outside’ and he just found that crease.”

Wood will play in its eighth state title game since 2008, with a 5-2 record in its previous seven games.

Meyer still had to make the kick and as he lined up 25 yards out with seven seconds left, Gateway called a timeout. The kicking unit went back out and the Gators used their last timeout to do it again.

The senior joked he’d never been iced in a game before, much less double-iced, but it really didn’t seem to bother him.

“I think that helped,” Meyer said. “I got to visualize everything and get my stance ready two times before, so thank you to Gateway for that.

“You have to have thick skin to be a kicker, you get overlooked sometimes, nobody cares about the kicker but this game showed it matters.”

Meyer reported his brother Alex, who ended up in the hospital Thursday, was doing just fine.

“That kick was for Alex,” Meyer said.

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