HAZLETON — After all the rousing running plays, unrivaled resiliency and riveting momentum-changing twists and turns, a battle of early-season Wyoming Valley Conference unbeatens came down to this:
A kid who wasn’t about to let opportunity slip away twice.
Nah-Syr Garner snuck through the line of scrimmage and blocked Hazleton Area’s try at a tying extra point with 6:18 to play Friday as Wyoming Valley West held off the never-say-die Cougars, 21-20 in a high school football game at Harman Geist Field.
“The second-to-last (point after attempt), I saw a hole I thought I could get through,” Garner, a sophomore, said. “But I was late. I promised myself that wasn’t going to happen the next time.”
Garner shot through a gap and lunged to knock down Hazleton Area’s final PAT try, ending the Cougars’ jubilation over Damon Horton’s 1-yard touchdown blast that had everyone thinking the final minutes would be an attempt to see which team could break a tie.
Garner had other ideas.
“I just saw an open hole,” Garner said. “I just went as fast as I can so I could make a big play. I always dreamed of having a big moment.
“It’s good that was my moment.”
It was a moment that made Valley West’s lead, and 270 rushing yards from star running back Carson Canavan, hold up.
Canavan was pretty much unstoppable, scoring on a 42-yard touchdown run and accounting for more than half of Valley West’s 446 total yards.
“No one knew the talent I had,” Canavan said, explaining that he had to wait his turn and didn’t see the field much while older, explosive players saw the field in front of him for the Spartans. “I had to prove myself. I think I’m doing that.”
His 42-yard burst in the first quarter led to Valley West’s first score, a 6-yard touchdown sneak by quarterback Jake Shusta for a 7-0 lead.
And Canavan broke loose again, with a 42-yard scoring dash in the second quarter that sent the Spartans into halftime with a 14-7 lead.
“He’s a horse,” said Valley West coach Pat Keating, who gave Canavan the ball 29 times. “He can carry the load. When you have him, and the way our offensive line played tonight, that was a big difference in the game.”
Even when Shusta tossed a 65-yard touchdown pass for Valley West’s final touchdown, Canavan had a huge impact.
It came off a play-action fake to Canavan and brought Hazleton Area’s defense scurrying toward the backfield, leaving Nate Baranski all alone for the easy catch-and-run score that gave the Spartans a 21-14 lead two plays into the fourth quarter.
“It’s a good thing, what we’re doing,” Canavan said, “pounding the ball, and then we confuse them.”
The Cougars never caved in, though.
They answered Valley West’s first score with Sparky Wolk’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Hunsinger to tie the game at 7-7 midway through the second quarter.
And after the Cougars fumbled the ball away at Valley West’s 1-yard line in the third quarter, Wolk — playing defensive back — pounced on a Spartans fumble. Horton, who finished with 136 rushing yards and two touchdowns, cashed it in with a 22-yard scoring sprint to even things again at 14-14.
After Baranski’s touchdown grab put the Spartans ahead just 42 seconds into the final quarter, Hazleton Area took off on a 77-yard scoring march capped when Horton hurled into the end zone to bring the Cougars within a point.
“It was two great teams,” Keating said. “We were fortunate we were able to make more plays than them.”
The biggest one came when Garner found a way to get his hands on Hazleton Area’s ensuing extra point attempt.
“We work on it every day,” Keating said. “We tell the kids all the time that special teams can be the difference in the game. Tonight it was.”
Valley West then ran out the final 6:18 by driving 69 yards to the Hazleton Area 1-yard line before taking a knee, but the dymanics of the final minutes had changed. Instead of needing a score to win, the Spartans were happy to keep picking up first downs to run time from the clock.
All because Garner wouldn’t be denied from blocking a kick.
“I’m proud of him,” Canavan said, “and so is everyone else.”
Valley West 21, Hazleton Area 20
Wyo. Val. West`7`7`0`7 — 21
Hazleton Area`0`7`7`6 — 20
WVW — Jake Shusta 6 run (Adam Silvak kick), 1:33
H — Jacob Hunsinger 39 pass from Sparky Wolk (Will Barrientos kick), 8:09
WVW — Carson Canavan 42 run (Silvak kick), 7:35
H — Damon Horton 22 run (Barrientos kick), 3:48
WVW —Nate Baranski 65 pass from Shusta (Silvak kick), 11:18
H — Horton 1 run (Kick blocked), 6:18
RUSHING — WVW, Carson Canavan 29-270, Jayden Watkins 5-25, Jake Shusta 10-13, Nah-Syr Garner 1-7, Nate Baransky 1-4, TEAM 1-(minus 1). HAZ, Damon Horton 26-136, Sparky Wolk 7-47, TEAM 1-(minus 2).
PASSING — WVW, Shusta 6-10-0-127. HAZ, Wolk 7-16-0-124.
RECEIVING — WVW, Dontae Rhodes 2-38, Baranski 1-65, Garner 1-16, Dylan Nastanski 1-12, Canavan 1-(minus 4). HAZ, David Smith 3-26, Horton 2-51, Jacob Hunsinger 2-47.
MISSED FGs — WVW, Adam Silvak 24-WL.
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski