Guido: Two decades later, ‘Miracle at the Park’ still resonates
It was a typical mid-autumn day Nov. 12, 1994, as one of the largest crowds in Riverside Park history arrived in Oakmont.
Average temperatures under overcast skies greeted fans as they filled the stands and crowded along the perimeter awaiting the start of the WPIAL Class A quarterfinal between Riverview and Jefferson-Morgan.
Little did anyone know at the time they would be witnessing what Valley News Dispatch readers would later vote the “Greatest Sports Moment in Alle-Kiski Valley History.”
A 94-yard pass from Jeff Cappa to Ben Erdeljac tied the game with 36 seconds left, and an overtime pass from Cappa to twin brother Jason lifted the Raiders to an improbable 34-28 victory that was quickly dubbed “The Miracle at the Park.”
“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” Erdeljac said. “It’s brought a lot of pride and joy to people in Oakmont and Verona.”
There were only eight playoff teams in each WPIAL classification at the time, and Riverview was seeded No. 1 and Jefferson-Morgan eighth.
The way the game started, you would never guess which was the highest seeded team.
The Rockets took a 14-0 lead into halftime, thanks to a 36-yard run by Mike McCort and a 60-yard pass from Scott Whetsell to Nathan Hassett.
Riverview finally broke through on a 5-yard run by Jeff Cappa with 1:54 left in the third quarter. But Jefferson-Morgan quickly answered with a 72-yard run by Xavier Lockette to give the Rockets a 21-7 advantage at the end of three quarters.
A 10-yard Cappa-to-Cappa pass brought the Raiders closer, but a 27-yard pass from Whetsell to McCort made it 34-22 Rockets with 4:06 left in the fourth quarter.
Riverview frantically headed downfield, using all its timeouts and getting a 34-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Cappa to Erdeljac on fourth down with 1:49 to go.
The Raiders couldn’t stop the clock, and Jefferson-Morgan looked ready to put the game away as McCort got loose on a 46-yard run to the Riverview 5.
Local fans figured at that point, Whetsell would take a knee and run out the clock, so many headed for the exits, including Erdeljac’s mother.
Instead, Whetsell prepared to hand off to McCort. But he put the ball on McCort’s hip, fumbling the exchange.
Raiders tackle Justin Pappa pounced on the ball at the 6, giving Riverview a final gasp.
Center Andy Flaherty came running over to the stunned Raiders coach Jake Cappa frantically yelling, “Coach, we need a play.”
Cappa told his offense to run a one-man fly.
That meant for the speedy Erdeljac to take off downfield.
Jeff Cappa hit Erdeljac in stride at midfield, and Erdeljac raced to the end zone.
Pandemonium broke out at Riverside Park as fans came on to the field, including educator Charles Erdeljac, Ben’s father, who decided to stay.
One of the funniest parts of the miraculous turn of events was seen from the crowded press box. Fans who had left the game ran back to see what was going on, jamming into other fans at the exits, forming a glob of humanity.
Several motorists on Third Avenue abandoned their cars to head in and see what all the excitement was about.
I can remember jogging down the field with tackle Jeremy Dudczak after the play,” Jason Cappa said. “I looked at the bench, and my dad was so happy while trying to control the bench. You couldn’t write a better story.”
But the story wasn’t over. The officials called a celebration penalty, moving the extra-point try to the 18, where the kick was missed, sending the game into overtime with the score knotted at 28-28.
The Rockets had the first overtime possession. On fourth down, Dudczak tackled Whetsell for an 8-yard loss.
It was then Riverview’s turn.
On third down, Jeff Cappa threw a pass to Jason, and the game was suddenly over.
“I didn’t realize at the time people would still be talking about it 20 years later,” Jason Cappa said. “We were just trying to win a football game and move on to the next week.”
“It was one of those games that was a part of a special season for us,” Erdeljac said. “Jefferson-Morgan had a fantastic game plan, and we were playing as hard as we could. I can’t explain it. Sometimes, fortunes turn on one play.”
Riverview went on to beat Rochester the following week and lost to Western Beaver in the WPIAL title game at Three Rivers Stadium.
Coach Jake Cappa, inducted into several halls of fame, died last May.
Jason Cappa is the Riverview coach and seems on his way to reviving the program.
Jeff Cappa is coach at Wissahickon in Ambler, near Philadelphia.
Ben Erdeljac graduated from Duke and is a math teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School. He lives in Ohio Township.
The final portion of the game was voted the greatest moment in area sports history in a 1998 Valley News Dispatch readers poll.
George Guido is a Valley News Dispatch scholastic sports correspondent. His column appears Wednesdays.