With the State College football team huddled around him, coach Matt Lintal called the seniors to the front and delivered a message to the underclassmen.
Lintal wanted them to see how much it meant to the veterans to be a part of the Little Lions program. Tears fell down their faces after their 49-21 loss to Pine-Richland in the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals at Hempfield Area High School on Saturday. It marked the end of their season and their high school football careers.
And the coach expressed his pride in the senior class’s efforts, while giving his younger players something to think about.
“I want them to understand that a day can’t go by that they’re not doing something to make sure that they can hopefully walk off the field at the end of their senior year and have it be with a win,” Lintal said. “Because there’s not many teams that get that opportunity.”
Pine-Richland, one of the favorites to hoist the state championship trophy, punched its ticket to the semifinals, where the Rams will take on Manheim Township next Saturday. Pine-Richland came into the game ranked No. 24 in the nation in the USA Today Super 25 Computer Rankings, and the Rams showed why in the second half.
After State College challenged Pine-Richland and went into halftime tied 14-14, the Rams outscored the Little Lions 28-7 in the third quarter to seize control. Pine-Richland quarterback Phil Jurkovec, a Notre Dame commit, sparked his team with three touchdown passes and one rushing score in the game-turning third quarter.
Jurkovec completed 20 of 25 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns in addition to rushing for 119 yards and two scores in the victory.
“They played us tough,” Jurkovec said. “I would say that they were, if not the toughest, one of the toughest (opponents).”
The Little Lions came into the game fired up to battle the Rams, ready to play with a physicality and team mentality established by the seniors. They stayed in the game in the first half, thanks to their defense, special teams and the play of senior wide receiver Brandon Clark.
Clark turned in a dominant performance in the first half, making five catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Pine-Richland had no answer for the Little Lions’ 6-foot-4 wideout as he won jump ball after jump ball to power State College’s offense. One play after Little Lions senior linebacker Ian Barr blocked a punt, Clark hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 7-7 in the first quarter, firing a fist pump while Pine-Richland defensive back Thomas Burns slammed his hands on the turf in frustration.
The Little Lions defense played with the same passion throughout the first half to limit Pine-Richland’s explosive offense — State College stopped Jurkovec on fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line to set up Clark’s second touchdown catch to tie the game 14-14 just before the half.
“With the stuff that Brandon does in practice on a day-to-day basis, there’s nothing that that young man does that will surprise me,” Lintal said. “He is a playmaker and when we get a matchup that we like, we’re going to exploit it.”
But the Little Lions also knew they’d need to create some opportunities to pull the upset and decided to try an onside kick at the start of the second half. Pine-Richland recovered, and Jurkovec connected with Dawson Goltz on a 39-yard touchdown 49 seconds into the third quarter. Less than one minute later — after a State College interception — Jurkovec threw another touchdown pass to push the Rams’ lead to 28-14.
The Little Lions couldn’t recover as Jurkovec and the Rams found their rhythm to run away with the win.
“They have a phenomenal quarterback. He saw the open man,” said Clark, who finished with seven catches for 148 yards. “We couldn’t get to him. That’s how they killed us.”
Clark was one of the seniors who led the Little Lions all season. He and his classmates took ownership of the program by encouraging and pushing their teammates to work hard in the weight room and at offseason workouts. And in what proved to be the final game of their high school careers, they made their mark on offense, defense and special teams.
“I wish I could play another year,” Clark said.
For the underclassmen who will be playing for the Little Lions on Friday nights in 2018 and beyond, Lintal hopes they remember the scene after Saturday’s game. They’ll be seniors in the future, playing their final games in the state playoffs.
And he hopes they’ll be looking forward to next week after the quarterfinals like Jurkovec was Saturday as they aim to make a run for a state championship.