KINGSTON — It wasn’t much more than a prayer when he threw it. Down by eight in the final minute on Friday, Wyoming Valley West quarterback Jake Shusta had fourth-and-25 from the Hazleton Area 34-yard line.
The junior, playing in place of a sidelined Rob Dwyer, avoided a pass-rusher, set his feet and flung it toward the end zone.
Wideout Jake Blaski had Cougars on either side of him. But neither got up in the air like he did. The Spartans receiver somehow snagged the ball right in between both of them for an acrobatic touchdown with 10 seconds left.
But the drama of the moment would end up being drained.
During the celebration, a flag came out. The Spartans were ruled to have spiked the football, and the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty backed up the ensuing 2-point conversion try for the tie.
Hazleton Area denied the attempt, recovered an onside kick and came out with a 17-15 victory to snap a seven-game losing streak to Valley West.
An impressive defensive effort by the Cougars (1-1) nearly vanished with Valley West’s late heroics.
“I thought our kids played too hard for that to happen,” Hazleton Area coach Mike Brennan said. “We had to make play on the 2-point play. I told the kids, ‘Moxie — go Google it tonight.’ Because they played hard. They played gutty. We had to earn everything.”
Damon Horton scored both Cougars touchdowns, taking a pass 80 yards for a score on the opening drive of the game before running one in from 4 yards out early in the fourth quarter to give his team a 17-9 lead following a Spartans fumble.
Valley West (0-2) was turned away inside the Hazleton Area 10 on the following drive, but managed to get the ball back at its own 33 with 2:24 left and no timeouts.
The Spartans proceeded to go on a 13-play drive, including three spikes to stop the clock, two pre-snap penalties and a sack to set up the fourth-and-25 touchdown.
The ensuing flag was tough for the home team to swallow. Though the ball ended up on the ground after the play, there was nothing resembling a Rob Gronkowski-style wind-up and spike.
“I think that’s a rough call in the moment,” Spartans coach Pat Keating said. “Considering we had a shot to tie game up, it’s hard to penalize a kid for that.
“But that’s just one instance. Physically, we played a great game. Mentally, we didn’t. We made too many busts and cost ourselves in too many key situations. I don’t want to take anything away (from Hazleton Area). It was a hard-fought game between two great teams.”
Even had the penalty not been called, a successful conversion — made necessary by Hazleton Area blocking the extra point after a Zach Davies 1-yard plunge in the third quarter — was far from a sure thing. The Cougars had previously stuffed the Spartans on two fourth-and-short plays earlier in the game. And overtime would have awaited after that.
Hazleton Area had its own gripe. Earlier on the final drive, the Cougars thought they had an interception in front of their sideline, but the officials ruled simultaneous possession, giving Valley West a catch and a first down.
As it was, both defenses held their opponents under 265 total yards. The Cougars finished with just 39 yards on the ground, though Sparky Wolk threw for 210 yards.
“We couldn’t run the ball against them,” Brennan said. “They’re a lot bigger than us, like most teams are going to be.”
Shusta finished with 161 yards through the air for the Spartans.
“I think we did too many things to lose the game,” Keating said. “I think we had so many opportunities, and we just didn’t capitalize on them. And they did. They didn’t make mistakes, and they made plays when they had to. And we didn’t. That was the difference in the game.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse