By JEFF NORRIS
After sitting out a bye last weekend, top-seeded Juniata Valley began its postseason by playing host to a very patient Conemaugh Valley team in the District 6A quarterfinal round Friday evening.
The Blue Jays ran off more than twice as many plays from scrimmage as their hosts, but the Hornets were able to take advantage of big plays to come away with a decisive 29-12 victory.
Conemaugh Valley got the ball first when the Hornets won the toss and deferred. The Blue Jays ate up around nine minutes with a 16 play drive that earned them no points. Starting at their own 36, they drove the ball all the way to the Hornet 24 getting flagged for a personal foul that gave them a 15 yard penalty and moved them back to the Hornet 47, forcing a punt.
Juniata Valley took over at its own 11. After fullback Jayce Rand picked up six yards, Hornet quarterback Lambert Palmer found Jacob Rodkey behind the defense down the right sideline. The pass hit Rodkey in stride and he out-ran the his defender for an 83-yard touchdown. He kicked the PAT to give the Hornets a 7-0 lead with 2:11 left in the first quarter.
For their second possession, the Blue Jays marched 67 yards in 14 plays for the first TD. Nick Heltzel scored from three yards out with 6:37 left in the half. Noah Heltzel tried to run for the two-point conversion, but came up just short.
After each team had a three-and-out, the Hornets got the ball on a punt at their 27. On the first play, Jake Johnson took a pitch around the right side, broke several tackles and got free in the secondary. A Conemaugh Valley defensive back had an angle, but a stiff arm by Johnson created some space and the Hornet finished off a 73-yard run to paydirt. Holder Nick Morningstar picked up a low snap on the PAT attempt the ran left for a two-point conversion with 2:24 left in the half.
The Hornets got the ball back with less than a minute remaining in the half. On their second play, Palmer was picked off by Noah Heltzel who returned the interception 49 yards for a TD with 21 seconds on the clock. The Blue Jays again tried to run for the PAT, but came up short.
“This was playoff football,” said Hornet coach Bill Musser. “It may not have looked like a Picasso, but it was beautiful to me. We knew they’d punch us and they did. Jake (Johnson) made a couple big plays for us. He’s been steady and reliable all year.”
The Hornets got the ball first in the second half and pounded out 51 yards to add another score. Rand was featured, carrying the ball eight times for 37 of those yards and scoring the TD from the five. Another bad snap led to a miss of the PAT attempt, but the Hornets still had a 21-12 lead.
Defenses took over the rest of the second half. Neither offense was able to generate a whole much. The Hornets ended one possible Blue Jay threat when Rodkey intercepted a pass at the Hornet 10.
The Hornets moved out of the shadow of the end zone, but stalled and had to punt. The Blue Jays hurt themselves with a crack back block on the return and started at their own 17. On the first play, Logan Kent tried to get outside to the right, but got caught in traffic and fumbled the ball. Johnson picked it up for the Hornets and raced 16 yards for the TD. He rushed for the two-pointer to set the final score with 7:02 left in the game.
The Blue Jays put together a final long drive, reaching the Hornet 15 before giving the ball up on downs with under a minute to play.
The Hornets took a knee to run out the clock.
“I really want to give our second and third groups a lot of credit for this win,” Musser concluded. “They challenged us in practice this week and that paid off. They got us ready to play a tough opponent tonight. This was definitely a total team effort.”
GAME NOTES: Kent was the workhorse for the Blue Jays, carrying the ball 34 times for a game-high 91 yards ... The Blue Jays netted 130 on the ground and 55 through the air with Noah Heltzel completing five of 11 passes for 55 yards. He was picked off once ... The Hornets finished with 167 rushing yards, led by Rand with 81 on 15 carries ... Palmer connected on just three of eight passes, but they picked up 99 yards and produced a touchdown ... The Hornets will next face fourth-seeded Portage in a District 6A semifinal matchup Friday at 7 p.m. at A.R.Simpkins Field.