By: John Knebels
HERSHEY, PA –It was September 28, a Saturday evening that transformed the weekend into an emotional abyss.
Archbishop Wood had just lost to Roman Catholic, 20-6, a defeat that had appeared unfathomable on paper. The setback dropped the Vikings to 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the rugged six-team Catholic League Red Division.
“I think that loss humbled us,” said junior running back/defensive back Kaelin Costello. “It made us realize that we have to come out to play every game with maximum effort.”
Fast forward to this past Friday night (December 6) in what became a riveting PIAA Class 5A state championship at a frigid Hersheypark Stadium.
Trailing District 1 champion Cheltenham (14-2 overall) by 15-12 and sitting on their own 35-yard line with 3:54 remaining in regulation, Wood’s season was on life support. Eleven plays later, the District 12 champ Vikings (11-3) scored a touchdown with four seconds left to pull off a miraculous 19-15 victory for its third state title in four years and its sixth since 2011.
“Since day one, the only people that thought we were going to win this game were those people in the huddle and our fans,” said a beyond psyched senior Tom Pomponi, a second-team All-Catholic linebacker whose dominance included 11 tackles (four resulting in lost yardage) and the game’s only sack. “Everyone has worked so hard for this, and it’s so deserved.
“Coming into this year we (didn’t have a lot of) seniors. No one thought we could win. No one thought we had leadership. Everyone thought we were young. Well, guess what? We won. We won this game.”
They did indeed, but man oh man, it wasn’t easy.
The Vikings used a pair of second-quarter field goals – a 42-yard line drive by senior Ryan Morgan with 8:45 remaining and a 22-yarder by senior Rob Meyer on the last play – to forge a 6-0 lead at halftime.
A perfectly placed kickoff by Meyer to start the second half resulted in Wood immediately taking possession in great field possession, and on the first play from scrimmage, Costello rumbled 28 yards to double the Vikings’ lead to 12-0. Undaunted, Cheltenham cut its deficit to 12-7 on a desperation heave with 6:10 left in the third to end the shutout bid, but the Panthers weren’t finished.
With 9:06 left in the fourth quarter, Cheltenham started at is own 30-yard line. A meticulous 13-play, 70-yard drive orchestrated a go-ahead touchdown with 4:00 remaining, and a successful two-point conversion gave Cheltenham a shocking 15-12 advantage.
As the defense came off the field, first-team All-Catholic junior linebacker Shane Collier (seven total tackles) stayed with the offense as a blocker at left wingback. The mission, he said, wasn’t rocket science.
“You just gotta drive it down the field,” said Collier. “Score a touchdown and win the game.”
In what will always be remembered as “The Drive,” Wood relied mostly on the running of Costello (38 carries, 282 yards, 13th touchdown), sticking with the offensive game plan despite time slipping away.
Eventually, the Vikings faced a first and goal at the three-yard line with eight ticks remaining. A 20-yard field goal would tie the game and send it into overtime. Coach Kyle Adkins decided to take a shot at the end zone.
Junior quarterback Max Keller, who had completed three passes for 25 yards prior, took the snap, dropped back a few steps, and fired a pass in the direction of junior Cardel Pigford, who was running a slant to the right.
The line-drive toss arrived a split second after Pigford turned around. After a momentary juggle against his thigh, Pigford embraced the pass against his body as he fell about five yards deep in the end zone.
The Wood crowd went insane – a combination of ecstasy and relief.
Junior Ryan Woertz was the first to reach Pigford, and the pair jumped toward the sky. The rest of the cast quickly joined the celebration. There were still four seconds showing on the clock, but that was basically academic. After Meyer booted the extra point, the Vikings only needed to secure the ensuing kickoff.
A Meyer kick was received near the 20, and the Cheltenham receiver was unable to avoid the swarming horde of Wood tacklers who clinched the triumph.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said second-team All-Catholic senior linebacker Ryan DiVergilis. “We just bought in to all of what the coaches told us all week. We’re thinking that once we get here, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get back.
“As a senior, there’s no bigger stage than to end my career. I’m so proud of the guys on this team.”
Pigford, a first-team All-Catholic running back who finished with a team-high 14 touchdowns, was asked about his heroics.
“The only thing I could think about was, ‘Catch this ball,’” said Pigford. “It’s just a great feeling. I knew it was possible.”
Keller tried not to overthink the situation.
“I knew my team needed me to make a play, so I had to get the job done,” said Keller. “It was an amazing moment, and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending.”
Since the Vikings won eight of their last nine after the aforementioned loss to Roman, September 28 was, indeed, arguably the turning point for a team that reached depths that few thought plausible.
“We just didn’t want to have any repeats of that night for the rest of the year,” said Costello. “I think we did a pretty darn good job doing that.”