NEW KENSINGTON: There were rights on the line Friday night at Valley High School Memorial Stadium.
Rivalry bragging rights. Rights to an early season perch atop the Greater Allegheny Conference. More importantly, symbolic rights to the Tarentum Bridge.
Just when it looked like Valley would be the team doing the bragging, Highlands bridged a gap between itself and a 13-point deficit, scoring 34 unanswered points to force their way to a 34-13 conference-opening victory on Valley’s Senior Night.
Senior fullback Kevin Linza scored four touchdowns and Highlands (1-0, 4-1), the No. 1-ranked team in the Valley News Dispatch Big Schools poll, scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to retain the bridge and get a jump on conference play.
“We did some things after (some coaches) saw some things from the press box,” said Highlands coach Tim Karrs. “We made a couple of adjustments. Our line came off the football and took control.”
Highlands wasn’t thinking about the bridge nuance, especially at intermission.
“We don’t buy into any of that bridge stuff,” said junior quarterback Zack Bonatesta, whose third-quarter touchdown — and Mike Duffy’s extra point — tied the game at 13. “We came out real flat, but in Golden Ram football, you pick it up.”
The proverbial tale of two halves took shape as momentum shifted Highlands’ way after Valley’s fast start.
Highlands didn’t panic at halftime, despite being down, 13-6.
In the early going, Valley was as charged up as Highlands was flat-footed. The opposite was true in the second half.
“I think our kids were a little bit in shock themselves on how well we played in the first half,” Valley coach Randy Walters said. “We have to learn how to come out better in the second half. If we do that, we’ll be OK.”
“We came out and were going through the motions,” Karrs said. “We had a nice gameplan and the kids executed it. We didn’t do anything tricky.”
Valley (0-1, 2-3) took the opening kickoff and marched 56 yards in 11 plays, capped by a 2-yard touchdown run by senior running back Howard Scott. The extra point failed, but Highlands appeared stunned and on its heels.
Highlands then turned the ball over on downs and lost a fumble on consecutive possessions. After Josh Simmons recovered a Linza fumble, the Vikings went 37 yards in 10 plays, and Jason Discello’s 3-yard scoring run — he bounced off a defender, spun twice and fell forward into the end zone — gave Valley a 13-0 edge.
Good things seemed to happen when Bonatesta ran with the ball. His 22-yard rush set up the Rams’ first score, which capped a 7-play drive that started at the Rams’ 43.
“Zack is starting yo feel more comfortable running the football,” Karrs said. “If you get him on the perimeter, he’s an athlete. He makes things happen.”
Linza made it 13-6 on a 4-yard TD run. The extra point was blocked.
“We started a surge in the second quarter,” Bonatesta said. “We came back out and set the tone (in the second half) and wore them down.”
Highlands’ second drive of the third quarter began at the Valley 26. Six straight running plays was all Highlands needed to get Bonatesta into the end zone to tie it.
Bonatesta had 61 yards on 8 carries.
After a Valley punt, Highlands was flawless on six more rushes. Linza bowled in from the 3 for a 19-13 lead which saw another failed extra-point try.
That’s when the wheels fell off for Valley.
Freshman Toney Clemons — who left the game with what appeared to be a minor leg injury — fumbled the kick return and Joe Lucchino recovered for Highlands at the Valley 22.
Five runs later, Linza was in from 6 yards, and Bonatesta’s two-point conversion sealed it.
Highlands attempted one pass in the second half. The Rams outgained Valley 231-57 in rushing yards, racking up 155 yards after halftime.
Junior Josh Shelton ran for 103 yards on 20 carries. Linza had 64 on 15 attempts.
Valley may have simply worn down after the strong start.
“We’re still playing with 30 football players,” Walters said. “We get tired. All of our kids play both ways. That’s tough.
“Highlands is a real good football team. There’s no shame in what we did tonight.”
Valley quarterback Mike Girardi completed his first seven passes and finished 9 of 11 for 84 yards.
Back to the “bridge thing,” Highlands has won four of the last five meetings, scoring 34 or more points in three straight victories.
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