HAZLETON — The final score said it should have been another demoralizing opening day defeat for the Hazleton Area Cougars.
Then why were they so upbeat?
Maybe because the Cougars came oh-so-close to pulling off a miraculous comeback, before falling to Scranton 45-29 at Harman-Geist Memorial Field.
With barely seven minutes to play, the Cougars were within three points of powerful Scranton. And they nearly took over deep in Scranton territory, when defensive end Carman Beltrami first batted a pass, then made a diving attempt for it.
But while most everyone in the stands thought Beltrami came up with the ball at Scranton’s 31-yard line — maybe a first down from giving kicker Tristan Williams a shot at tying the game — the ball was ruled to have nicked the ground just before Beltrami secured it.
That was the ruling on both the pass and Hazleton Area’s wild comeback attempts.
“This is a game of inches,” Hazleton Area coach Jim Drumheller said. “And I think he came within a half of an inch.”
From there, Scranton ran a couple hundred yards away from the upset scare, as Marcus Morrison scored on a 67-yard touchdown run and Ramon Fields returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown in a 25-second span that put the game away for good and set the final score.
But don’t tell Hazleton Area — or Scranton, for that matter — it was a blowout.
“There are times we shot ourselves in the foot with a penalty,” Drumheller said. “But I’m going to tell you something: there’s so much football left in this football team. We’re far, far from being finished this season, that’s for sure.”
At the start, it appeared Scranton was ready to finish Hazleton Area quickly.
Tailback Jake McCarthy, who rushed for a whopping 232 yards, scored on touchdown runs of 16, 37 and 48 yards, Scranton quarterback Kyle Pieczynski found flashy wideout Joshua Gonzalez with touchdown throws of 55 and 54 yards and Scranton rolled up a 32-7 lead with 4:22 left in the first half.
That’s when momentum began to turn.
“That’s a heck of a football team,” Drumheller said of Scranton. “McCarthy is just McCarthy. He’s a very good running back. But we’ve got some good running backs, too.”
One of them, Zach Zukoski, returned a first-quarter kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to pull the Cougars within 12-7.
And when the game appeared out of reach, Hazleton Area rallied hard in an attempt to catch up.
The Cougars nearly did.
Wide receiver Jeff Ochs took a screen pass 34 yards for a touchdown less than two minutes before halftime. And when Scranton’s punter had to kneel to field a low snap, downing the ball at his 33-yard line, the Cougars cashed in when quarterback Julius Ward scrambled a yard for another score as time ran out on the opening half.
Hazleton Area wasn’t quite finished putting a scare into Scranton.
On a 60-yard touchdown drive, Zukoski took a screen pass 13 yards into Scranton territory, then polished it off with a three-yard touchdown run.
And when Ward dove across the goal line, the Cougars had 22 unanswered points and were sitting within 32-29.
Some display of fortitude.
“There’s no doubt,” Drumheller said. “Just the attitude, just the effort. We were down by three, eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. These seniors and our captains won’t let this team quit. They just believed they could get it done.
“When you get that kind of effort, moral victories, they don’t mean anything to me,” Drumheller continued. “It’s an L. But we’re going to be definitely charging for our W next week.”
Winner x, Loser x
S — Joshua Gonzalez 55 pass fromn Kyle Pieczynski (kick failed), 8:30
S — McCarthy 37 run (Alex Luna conversion pass fromn Pieczynski), 11:13
HA — Zukoski 3 run (Ward conversion run), 8:50
Team statistics`Scranton`Haz. Area
RUSHING — SCR, Jake McCarthy 24-232, Marcus Morrison 5-82, Jared Little 2-14, Kyle Pieczynski 2-4, Bryan Keller 1- (minus 2), Ramon Fields 1- (minus 3), TEAM 2- (minus 14). HAZ, Julius Ward 18-63, Zach Zukoski 8-33, Nick George 3-9, E.J. McCallum 2-3.
PASSING — SCR, Pieczynski 10-19-0-167. HAZ, Ward 14-26-1-184, TEAM 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — SCR, McCarthy 5-28, Joshua Gonzalez 4-129, Morrison 1-10. HAZ, Jeff Ochs 6-87, Gavin Kopczynskie 3-46, Zukoski 2-11, Charlie Burrows 1-16, George 1-13, Jesus Castillo 1-11.
INTERCEPTIONS — SCR, Ramon Fields.