BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS BY LORI MESSERSMITH
LEBANON – There aren’t too many things more difficult in scholastic football than rallying from a two-touchdown deficit with six minutes remaining. But one of them is regrouping and recapturing momentum, after a team has rallied from a two-touchdown deficit with six minutes remaining.
On Friday night at Lebanon Alumni Stadium, quarterback Mark Pyles and receiver Nick Negron’s collaboration on a two-point conversion on the final play of overtime lifted the Lebanon High football team to a goose-bump-producing 40-39 victory over Northern Lebanon. A play earlier, Pyles and Negron had hooked up for a touchdown over the middle on a last-gasp fourth-down-and-17 situation.
After trailing 32-18 with 5:54 to go, Northern Lebanon tallied three unanswered touchdowns, including a ten-yard fade connection between quarterback Isaac Ray and end Mason Yost on the first play of the extra session. The Vikings forced overtime when Yost and Ray got together on a similar fade pattern, from 16 yards out, with 51 seconds left in regulation.
With Yost, Negron and Pyles all enjoying career evenings, the side which emerged victorious was the one that wanted it most, not the one which needed it most.
The loss snapped Lebanon High’s 11-game losing streak, dating back to the final game of the 2011 campaign. The Cedars are now 1-1 overall, while the Vikings, who have now lost ten straight of their own, slipped to 0-2 in 2013.
“I’ll tell you why winning is so important,” said Lebanon head coach Gerry Yonchiuk. “If we lost after losing a two-touchdown lead, it would’ve been a crusher. I shared with them (his players) what the process would be (in overtime). It can’t get any more exciting than that, can it?
“We needed it,” continued Yonchiuk. “Our program needed it, from top to bottom, from the coaches to the players. Now it gives them (his players) something to believe in, something to build on. It’s a win. I don’t care if it was 7-6 or 77-76.”
“You never want to lose,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Roy Wall. “But it’s a game of inches. I told Gerry (Yonchiuk) – and we’ve been friends for years – I said, ‘If he didn’t do it (go for two), I was going to.’ But we got the ball first.
“You’ve got to give Lebanon credit,” added Wall. “They hung in there and made plays when they had to. Their kids played hard.”
Pyles completed 15 of his 25 attempts for 195 yards and all six of the Cedars’ touchdowns. Five of Pyles’ touchdown tosses went to Negron, who hauled in six aerials for 83 yards and another couple of two-point conversions for a total of 34 points. Yost caught three touchdown passes, ran for a fourth and accumulated 81 receiving yards on seven receptions.
“Nick Negron was just amazing, what he was able to do,” said Yonchiuk. “. We went to him on fourth down, and when we went for two, I had two thoughts in my head. Mark (Pyles) had two options. He could tuck it and go, or find a receiver. But I was really pleased how the young guys stepped up at the most important part of the game.
“He’s (Pyles) taking more time on his reads, and he’s taking less pounding on his body,” added Yonchiuk. “I think he was out of gas. But he did what he had to do.”
“I wasn’t watching,” said Wall of the game’s final play. “I was down. I saw him rolling out, and I was just hoping it (the ball) hit the ground.
“A win would’ve been nice,” Wall continued. “That was two weeks in-a-row where we played well enough to win and we made enough mistakes to lose. We’re right there. I think this game is going to go a long way in helping us.”
The Cedars appeared to have things well in hand when Pyles tossed a 31-yard scoring strike to Negron to give their team a 32-18 lead with 4:04 left in the third period. But with just under six minutes to play, Ray scampered in from nine yards out to cut the Vikings’ deficit to seven.
Lebanon High’s biggest advantage came at 26-10 and with 4:12 to play in the second quarter, when Pyles hit Negron with a 12-yard pitch. But the half ended at 26-18, after Yost ran in a 19-yard reverse and Ray hit Kyle Blackman for a subsequent two-point conversion.
“It didn’t look good,” said Yonchiuk. “But I have skill kids I’d put up against anyone we play.
“Negron can run well,” Yonchiuk continued. “Last year he had three touchdowns in seven games and four interceptions. We know he’s a play maker. He might be the fastest kid on the team.”
“We were down two touchdowns in the first quarter,” said Wall. “But the kids kept battling back. There was no sense of panic.”
The Cedars drove the opening kickoff 69 yards in six plays to get a five-yard Pyles touchdown pass to Xavier Baez. Then Lebanon turned a blocked punt into Pyles’ and Negron’s first scoring celebration, one from 22 yards out that made it 12-0.
“We’re better, but not where I want to be,” said Yonchiuk of his defense. “We did some ‘bending and not breaking’. We didn’t get a lot of turnovers. Number 81 (Yost) was phenomenal. Some of the catches he made were tremendous.”
“He’s getting there. He’s getting there,” said Wall of Ray. “It’s nice when you have a quarterback and receiver on the same page. It all fits. We’re going to go back, practice and do what we do better.”
Northern Lebanon got on the scoreboard with 2:57 of the opening stanza remaining, in the form of Mike Hauck’s 24-yard field goal. Two minutes into the second quarter, Yost made a diving catch on a 15-yard Ray pass that pulled the Vikings to within 12-10.
But Pyles hit Negron from two yards away and then hit him again for the two-point conversion that made it 20-10.
Behind Ray’s 158 yards on 22 carries, Northern Lebanon won the total yardage battle 348-320. Pyles added 98 rushing yards on 19 totes.