HERSHEY — Ligonier Valley could have rolled over and quit Saturday against Dunmore in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals at Hersheypark Stadium.
The Rams were down by nine and their best two offensive players — Jackson Daugherty and Aaron Tutino — were sitting on the bench with injuries. Things looked bleak.
But Ligonier Valley, the District 6 champion, wasn’t about to let this game go without a fight.
With junior quarterback John Caldwell, senior running back Aaron Sheeder and junior wide receiver Sullivan Schueltz leading the offense, and Sheeder, senior linebacker Joey Dubics and senior end Cole Peters leading the defense, the undermanned Rams had Dunmore coach Jack Henzes holding his breath.
A fourth-down pass in the end zone to Daugherty, who limped back onto the field after twisting both ankles in the third quarter, just sailed out of his grasp, and Dunmore held on for a 23-20 victory before a crowd of 1,171. Dunmore (14-0) will battle Southern Columbia (14-0) in the semifinals.
“I congratulate Dunmore and wish them well, but I’d like to see how well they’d do with six starters standing on the sidelines,” Ligonier Valley coach Roger Beitel said. “We had a lot of things in our game plan for Jackson and Aaron, and when they went out of the game, we were scrambling.”
Not only was Ligonier Valley (13-1) missing its two all-state receivers, sophomore tackle Mike Petrof was out of the game after suffering an injury in the first quarter. Sidelined previously were sophomore quarterback Sam Sheeder, senior tackle Jacob Neiderhiser and junior defensive back Zach Beitel, the coach’s son.
Ligonier Valley started quickly. After Dunmore’s Noah O’Malley stopped the Rams’ initial drive with an interception at the Dunmore 3, Ligonier Valley took a 7-0 lead on Daugherty’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Tutino on a wide receiver option.
Tutino gave Ligonier Valley a 14-0 lead 21 seconds later when he intercepted a Gavin Darcy pass and returned it 48 yards for a score.
But in the second quarter, Dunmore found its offense, and both Tutino and Daugherty were sidelined with injuries. Tutino injured his left leg, and Daugherty suffered a head injury.
“There were a lot of good football players standing on the sidelines watching,” Beitel said. “Every time we showed a weakness, they went right at it. We had a lot of backups playing.”
Senior Frank Damiano scored on a 2-yard plunge to cap an 80-yard drive, and after a 38-yard punt return by Steve Borgia, O’Malley caught a screen pass from Darcy and rumbled 22 yards to tie the score.
Tutino and Daugherty returned in the third quarter, but Tutino, after one play, limped off the field. Two plays later, Daugherty was attempting to make a catch and the defender rolled on both of his ankles.
Those injuries had Ligonier Valley offensive coordinator Scott Lewandowski looking for a new attack. Schueltz was forced into punting duties, which was Daugherty’s job, and Dunmore’s Kyle Harrity blocked a kick out of the end zone for a safety.
The safety came after Ligonier Valley senior Avery Arnone intercepted a Darcy pass in the end zone.
Dunmore led 23-14 after freshman Cristian Buckley raced 24 yards for a touchdown, which set up an exciting fourth quarter.
Caldwell, who missed on six consecutive passes, started connecting with Sheeder and Schueltz. Caldwell completed the 82-yard drive by hitting Sheeder with an 11-yard score to make it 23-20 with 6 minutes, 18 seconds left.
Caldwell finished 11 of 24 for 143 yards. Schueltz caught four passes for 54 yards, and Sheeder had four catches for 24 yards.
Ligonier Valley got the ball back with 4:21 left at its 23. Caldwell hit Schueltz for 23 yards on third-and-5, and then on fourth-and-19, hit sophomore Cage Dowden for 45 yards to the Dunmore 13 with 2:10 left.
On the play Caldwell was injured, and fourth-string quarterback sophomore Ethan Boring entered the game.
After two running plays failed to gain a yard, Caldwell’s slant pass to Schueltz was knocked down by O’Malley setting up fourth down. Beitel sent out kicker Peter Stoll to attempt a 30-yard field goal, but Dunmore called a timeout.
“We were going for the win, it was a fake,” Beitel said. “Once we they figured out it was going to be a fake, we sent the offense back on the field.”
The call was a corner route to Daugherty, but the pass just eluded his fingertips.
“That was close,” Henzes said. “It was a good call and he was open. We beat a great football team that is well coached.”
Beitel added: “If Jackson is 100 percent, he cuts and makes the play. But he wasn’t able to make a good cut on his ankles. It wasn’t meant to be.”
Beitel said he couldn’t be prouder of his players.
“Our team was about the seniors,” Beitel said. “They battled to the end. What encourages me is that I found some more football players. A lot the young guys stepped up.”
Then after hugging his son Zach, Beitel told him “how about a (district) three-peat. We’ll have to get to work soon.”
Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via twitter @Schofield_Trib.