Empire State reigns in Raabe Classic

Lori Chase
Aug. 9, 2012

It was one of the strangest games in the 39-year history of the Big 30 All-Star Game/Don Raabe Charities Classic.

And when it was finally over – some three and a half hours after the opening kickoff, and after New York and Pennsylvania had combined to break multiple records for rushing futility, passing attempts and yardage, and penalties – it was the blue-clad visitors from north of the border celebrating a 25-15 victory at Bradford’s Parkway Field on Saturday night. The win, in front of a crowd estimated at 3,000 even after a pregame cloudburst sent people scurrying for cover, increases their series lead to 20-17-2.

Shrugging off a nonexistent ground game, Empire State quarterbacks Colt Lowe (Portville) and Preston Wiltsie (Frewsburg) aired it out for a Big 30/Raabe-record 411 passing yards and three touchdowns – aided by several highlight-reel catches from Southwestern’s Jake Swan and Wiltsie’s teammate Dalton Peterson – to take a 19-6 lead into the half. But after the Pennsy defense snagged its second pick-six early in the fourth quarter, then tacked on a safety just over a minute later to close within a four-point gap, there were some nervous moments on both sidelines before the second Lowe-to-Swan score of the night secured the final margin of victory with just over four minutes left in the game.

“It was a little more high-powered and potent with the addition of some of those guys, obviously, but that’s our normal offense. That’s what we run,” said Frewsburg assistant coach Brendan Carter, who stepped in to take over the New York squad when Terry Gray was hospitalized with a bout of pancreatitis. “I knew we’d be able to throw the ball, but I didn’t know we’d be that successful. I was concerned about our run game inside, and obviously you saw the result of that – it didn’t go very well. It’s just knowing what our strengths are and our weaknesses are, and guessing a little bit about what theirs are.”

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania coach Bryan Gould was left to ponder a multitude of miscues and missed opportunities.

“We had four turnovers in the first half. We come out in the second half, we’re driving the ball, we get a couple of inconvenient dropped passes here and there, and that’s the name of the game,” said the Sheffield mentor, coaching his final game in the Big 30 area before leaving for a new teaching/coaching job in Blairsville. “Our defense played tremendously. Defense is the one that put the points on the board. Offensively, we put some drives together, and then we’d have an inopportune penalty or we’d have a very inopportune dropped ball. It’s just the way of the game, and it wasn’t on our side tonight.”

After Peterson gave New York an early spark by returning the kickoff just past midfield, the offense served notice that the Frewsburg playbook was wide open, starting the game with a hook-and-lateral and following it up with some “wildcat” action. The drive eventually stalled at the PA 23, but Pennsy’s first play from scrimmage was a harbinger of things to come as Cattaraugus-Little Valley defensive tackle Jim Agnew recovered a fumbled snap to give the ball right back to his offense.

From there, it took just four plays for New York to get on the scoreboard. On third-and-15 from the 30, Lowe stood his ground long enough to hit Swan at the 1, then rolled to his right on the next play to find the All-State receiver alone in the flat for an easy score. Swan, the Chautauqua County Player of the Year, added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

Pennsylvania continued to struggle on offense, turning the ball over twice more in the first quarter, the second three plays after a 32-yard catch-and-run by Port Allegany receiver Charlie Buchanan put them in NY territory for the first time. The defense did manage to convert a takeaway of its own into points, though, when St. Marys cornerback David Aul stepped in front of a Lowe pass and took the interception 52 yards to the end zone. The PAT was no good, but Pennsy was within one.

That was as close as they’d get. It didn’t take long for the Empire to strike back as the second quarter began, scoring on their next two drives while the defense kept the Keystone squad at bay to take a double-digit lead into the locker room.

For Gould, it was a chance to regroup.

“I told them at halftime, ‘We’re out of bullets to shoot ourselves in the foot. We’ve got to start converting on these things,’” he said, then shrugged. “But some days you’re good, some days you’ve got bad luck. Today we had bad luck.”

Despite being forced into catchup mode with a pair of quarterbacks from run-oriented offenses – the duo of Kevin Lord (Smethport) and Ike Nearing (Sheffield) would combine for a game-record 44 attempts as the New York defense continued to stuff the ground game – Pennsylvania put together two decent drives in the third quarter, the second one coming after a fumble recovery by Gator middle linebacker Brock Taylor set up the offense near midfield.

“I thought that was it. I thought that was the break we’d been waiting for,” Gould said of Taylor’s takeaway. “I was thrilled that Brock came up with that ball, and I thought, ‘Okay, here we go. The tide’s finally turning our way.’”

But with flags starting to pile up and chance after chance literally slipping through their grasp, Pennsy couldn’t cash in on either possession, and the score remained 19-6 heading into the final 15 minutes.

Then, with New York seemingly about to lock up a victory, the momentum instantly changed when Wiltsie hit a wide-open Zach Vleminckx with a pass right between the numbers. One problem for the Frewsburg quarterback: Vleminckx, a Bradford High linebacker playing on his home field, was wearing a red Pennsylvania jersey. A 52-yard sprint to the end zone and a Michael Shuey extra point later it was 19-13, and when a shotgun snap sailed past Lowe toward his own end zone three plays later, Pennsy had a golden opportunity to complete an improbable comeback. But with Cameron County defensive end Aaron Burnside agonizingly close to recovering the ball for the game-tying score, it trickled over the end line for a safety instead.

And with the lead chopped to four and the game suddenly on the line, the New Yorkers rose to the occasion, sending heavy pressure after Lord and Nearing and keeping Pennsylvania bottled up on its own side of the 50 until after the Lowe-to-Swan connection scored again with 4:30 left to essentially put the game out of reach.

“We’re not real big defensively, but we were fast,” an ebullient Carter said after watching his squad shut out the Pennsy offense. “And luckily, the defensive scheme we run is all about team speed, and it just kind of jelled. It was the right mix of kids with the right coaching staff and the right system all just kind of converged tonight.

“Everything was just clicking from Day 1.”

But while the Pennsylvania side was understandably disappointed with the outcome, the quintet of Port players still managed to appreciate the experience.

“Had fun every second of it. It was awesome,” Gator wideout Trevor Neal said. Teammate Tyler Burr agreed as he and fellow lineman Kyle Austin headed out of the locker room, adding, “It’s just an honor to be able to play with all the greats from the area, and the kids won in the end.”

And perhaps Taylor summed it up best:

“One of a kind. I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Amazing, spending two weeks with some of the best players from Northwestern Pennsylvania. It’s just a shame we couldn’t come up with the win.”

At Bradford, Aug. 4:

Score by quarters:
New York All-Stars 7 12 0 6 25
Pennsylvania All-Stars 6 0 0 9 15

First Quarter
NY – Jake Swan 1 pass from Colt Lowe (4 plays, 25 yards); Swan kick, 7-0, 11:10.
PA – David Aul 52 interception return; kick failed, 7-6, 1:56.

Second Quarter
NY – Dalton Peterson 19 pass from Preston Wiltsie (6 plays, 67 yards); run failed, 13-6, 14:55.
NY – Corey Vail 5 run (4 plays, 43 yards); pass failed, 19-6, 8:47.

Fourth Quarter
PA – Zach Vleminckx 52 interception return; Mike Shuey kick, 19-13, 12:43.
PA – Safety, shotgun snap out of end zone, 19-15, 11:10.
NY – Swan 16 pass from Lowe (4 plays, 52 yards); kick failed, 25-15, 4:30.

Team Statistics: NY PA
First downs 14 15
Total Yards 386 205
Rushes-Yards 26-(-25) 27-(-2)
Passing Yards 411 207
Comp-Att-Int 28-41-2 20-44-3
Fumbles-Lost 3-1 4-2
Punts-Avg. 4-29.5 4-35.0
Penalties-Yards 14-105 11-87
Total Plays 67 71
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