HERSHEY – Since he was a little boy, he dreamt of playing in the Big 33 Football Classic. But for Mark Pyles reality was better than he could’ve ever imagined.
More than just giving a good account of himself, Pyles truly soaked up and cherished the entire Big 33 experience. He made some plays, and he made some mistakes.
On Saturday night under the bright lights of Hersheypark Stadium, Pyles performed admirably during Pennsylvania’s 31-24, double-overtime loss to Maryland, during the 57th annual Big 33 Football Classic. After Pennsylvania had fallen behind 24-0 in the middle of the second quarter, Lebanon High’s graduated quarterback scored the touchdown that pulled PA to within 24-21, with 7:52 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But that was all the magic Pyles could muster on this particular evening. It was Pyles’ interception on the third play of Pennsylvania’s second-overtime possession which sealed the victory for Maryland.
Maryland had scored what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown on a 25-yard pass play on the first snap of the second overtime.
Pyles was supported well in the stands by a strong and boisterous contingent of Lebanon backers.
“I don’t remember how many Big 33 games I’ve been to,” said Pyles. “I can remember since Jared Odrick played (in 2006), but I haven’t been to all the games. It definitely lived up to my dreams. It’s a special experience. I’m glad to say I was a part of it. I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to me when I look back.
“It’s a great week,” Pyles continued. “I love being out here representing Pennsylvania. We know what this game means to the state.”
Pyles, who alternated possessions at quarterback with Lenny Williams of Sto-Rox under PA’s platoon system, was vintage Pyles on his 21-yard touchdown jaunt that drew Pennsylvania to within three points of Maryland. Running hard and eluding some would-be tacklers, Pyles toted the pigskin on a designed quarterback draw, right through the middle of the Maryland defense.
First, Pyles eluded a fierce rush before finding his safety valve for a first down. Then off his back foot, Pyles hit another target for the first down that set up his touchdown.
“It was a designed run,” said Pyles of his TD. “It was a quarterback trap. I followed my blocking and just made a move on a safety. It was smooth sailing after that.
“At first, I thought it (alternating possessions with Williams) was going to be tough,” said Pyles. “But I thought we started working well together. I had a couple of bad throws, but I thought we moved the ball in the second half.”
“This is a pinnacle,” said Lebanon head coach Gerry Yonchiuk during a halftime interview. “I think we (the Cedars) now have four quarterbacks in this game, which I think is the most ever by one school. With all the honors Mark has won, playing in this game is tremendous. What a great way to end a high school career. It’s kind of liking dotting the ‘I’. I hope he throws a touchdown pass in the second half, or runs one in. That would be my goal for him.”
With Pennsylvania needing to score a touchdown to send the game to a third overtime, Pyles rolled to his left on a first down snap from the Maryland 12. He spotted teammate Alec Bloom in the left corner of the end zone, but Pyles’ ball was underthrown, and subsequently picked off.
Just a play earlier, Pyles had hooked up with Bloom for a seven-yard completion that gave Pennsylvania its first down.
“I saw a 6-7 tight end who’s very athletic against a cornerback,” said Pyles of the last play of the game. “It wasn’t the best ball. We tried to make a play. It’s (rolling to his left) a tough throw. But I had time to set up. It could’ve been a better throw.
“The outcome is definitely important,” Pyles continued. “No one wants to lose a game, whether it’s an all-star game or not.”
“I think the speed of the pass rush is one of the bigger things,” said Yonchiuk. “They’re 6-6 all the way across. Some of those kids will play in the NFL. Mark will be OK. He did some good things (in the first half). I’m pleased. I’m proud of his effort.”
Pyles was responsible for the interception that Maryland returned 51 yards for a touchdown, and a 24-0 lead. But Pyles also engineered the scoring drive that pulled Pennsylvania to within 24-14, with 4:23 of the third quarter remaining.
He kept that Pennsylvania march alive with a 17-yard scamper off left end.
“I’ll miss it. I’ll definitely miss it,” said Pyles of a quarterback position he is not projected to play in college at Bucknell. “Linebacker has always been my first love. On offense, running the ball is my favorite. And I’ll definitely miss the Air Raid offense we ran at Lebanon. Thinking about it now, I’d have to say that this is my last high school game (instead of a first game on the next level), just because I probably won’t play quarterback in college.
“In the first half we were sluggish,” Pyles continued. “We didn’t play too well. At halftime the coaches talked to us and got us fired up.”
“He doesn’t know if this is going to be the last time he plays quarterback,” said Yonchiuk of Pyles. “Would he like to go out there and take a couple of snaps on defense? Most definitely. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
Pyles, who also played on the punt and punt return teams, was the most decorated player in the history of Lebanon County scholastic football. He was the 27th player from Lebanon County to compete in the Big 33 Classic, and the first since Palmyra’s Jon Hicks did so in 2012.
“I start working out with the team on July 7,” said Pyles of his impending trip to Lewisburg. “I just want to get bigger, faster and stronger, and start learning the system.
“At the beginning I think there were some butterflies he was going through,” said Yonchiuk of Pyles. “We got some of those gone when he had that nice run (on PA’s fourth offensive possession). I’m sure he’d like to have that one throw back. But he’s a competitor. He’ll never stop competing.”
Lebanon County’s Big 33 Participants