Against an undefeated team that's averaging 48.2 points per game, the margin of error is very slim.
Unfortunately for the Marian Colts, a two-minute span in the middle of their encounter on Friday night against the North Schuylkill Spartans was just enough to ruin their upset bid, as they proceeded to make just enough mistakes to hand over momentum to their guests, dropping a 39-21 game that was a lot closer than the score indicates or than what most people would have thought.
The 2-3 Colts, having lost two in a row (Mahanoy Area and Pius X), faced a monumental challenge in Coach Rick Geist's Spartans, winners of four in a row in which they racked up 193 points in disposing of their opponents. But thanks to a botched punt and an interception, one of two by Colt Phil Schron, Marian surprisingly led 14-7 with 1:59 left in the first half.
The Spartans actually had the early lead in the tilt, going 68 yards on seven plays, the final one being a 20-yard run by runningback Mike Shinkus (21 carries, 200 yards) with 8:14 on the first period clock. He also split the uprights to give his team a 7-0 advantage.
The first series notwithstanding, Marian displayed a Herculean-like defense, bending at times, but not breaking, and actually forced a pair of NS miscues that not only kept them in the game, but had them out in front.
First, a botched snap on a fourth-down punt, coupled with a heavy Colt rush, resulted in a one-yard punt that Damian Richards scooped up at the NS 31 and returned it to the 15. Three plays later, QB Ryan Karnish threw a strike to receiver Eric Swankoski in the endzone and after Paul Martin added the PAT, the game was tied at 7-7 with 11:14 left in the half.
Schron came up with his first pick of the night with 3:51 on the board, moving the pigskin to the Spartan 16. Then in four plays, Marian came up with the surprising lead on a five-yard TD run by Martin, who also converted the second of three successful extra point tries for a 14-7 Colt advantage.
All that changed before the next three minutes ran off the clock, as NS scored a pair of TDs in lightning-like fashion, taking a lead they wold never relinquish.
"We played hard," said Colt mentor Stan Dakosty, adding, "But there is no margin for error against a great team like that. It's very slim, and in a 16-point turnaround, momentum killed us."
Throughout the night, Shinkus was clearly the difference between the two sides. And his 59-yard TD jaunt with 1:16 left before the break silenced the Colt fans, getting the game to within one, 14-13. Then, he took a lateral on a bobbled snap on the conversion and threw to Matt Smarkanic in the endzone for a 15-14 lead.
"It put us behind, but our kids kept battling," Dakosty said.
Mistakes then proved costly for Marian in the second half, including a fumble on the second play from scrimmage. Matt Gownley caught the fumbled pigskin, racing unscathed for a 35-yard TD return. He also added the conversion run to give his team a 23-14 lead.
"I'm proud of the kids," said Geist. "We didn't play that good, but I'm glad we had a game like that. We stepped up and became a team tonight."
A Spartan turnover accounted for Marian's last score, which came when Schron intercepted Henning and advancedthe ball 46 yards to the endzone at the 7:13 point of the third stanza. Martin's boot made it 23-21.
Then it was Shinkus and Co. doing their thing, as North Schuylkill got back to its "grind it out" offense."We went back to the old Spartan way of doing things. We tried to run the ball," Geist said.
Twice, the Red and White marched downfield, scoring on a one-yard Henning run and a two-yarder by Gownley and opening an 18-point lead that Marian could never overcome.
In all, Shinkus had the 200 yards rushing, two TDs, a PAT placement boot, he scored on a two-point conversion run, and he threw for another two point conversion. "He's a hard runner and a great player," understated Geist.