Elizabeth Forward entered Friday’s matchup at Mount Pleasant Area boasting perhaps the top defense in the WPIAL. That stout unit was on full display, as the Warriors edged the Vikings 16-14 to move into first place in the Class 3A Interstate Conference.
With the setback, Mount Pleasant Area dropped to 4-2, and 4-1 in conference play. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Forward improved to 5-0, and 4-0 in conference action.
The low-scoring affair featured as many big plays defensively as on the offensive side, but in the end, it was Elizabeth Forward that produced just a few more of those splash plays.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Warriors faced a fourth-and-one from their own 30-yard line to begin the second. EF head coach Mike Collodi kept the offense on the field, however, and was immediately rewarded for the bold decision. Nico Mrvos, a receiver who also took snaps at quarterback with starting signal-caller Evan Lewis out with injury, broke through the line of scrimmage, and darted 70 yards to stake the Warriors to the lead.
That score accounted for the only points of the opening half, as both defenses tightened on numerous occasions. The Vikings took the opening drive deep into Elizabeth Forward territory, with a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, but a combination of penalties and negative plays ultimately forced them to punt. Elizabeth Forward forced turnovers on the next two Vikings’ possessions, with Mrvos snagging an interception, and Bowling Green commit Chase Whatton recovering a fumble.
Not to be outdone, the Vikings’ defense yielded a takeaway of its own, as Donovan Bair picked off an errant pass from freshman Vernon Settles, who made his first start at quarterback. The Vikings failed to turn that into points, however, as they punted to effectively end the first half.
After the intermission, both teams stalled on their initial drives, but the Warriors pinned the Vikings deep in their own territory, and forced a punt that spanned just 27 yards. Following a strong return by Zach Boyd, Elizabeth Forward begin its drive at the Mount Pleasant Area 15-yard line. Although the Vikings stuffed Elizabeth Forward on three straight plays, kicker Andrew Smith connected on a 31-yard field goal to extend the visitors’ advantage to 10-0.
The Vikings finally broke through on the last play of the quarter, as Aaron Alakson took the handoff on a counter play and dashed 49 yards for the score.
Alakson had four carries spanning 69 yards, while tailback Pete Billey had just one carry for two yards as a result of a lingering injury. That duo had combined for 124 carries for 644 yards entering Friday’s contest, but the Vikings relied heavily upon sophomore Robbie Labuda, who carried 19 times for 74 yards and added three receptions for 31 yards.
Fourth-year Mount Pleasant Area head coach Jason Fazekas downplayed the significance of Billey’s limitations on offense.
“I don’t really think it changed a lot, because we always practice two kids there,” he noted. “It didn’t dictate the game plan at all.”
Just 77 seconds after the Alakson score, however, Mrvos provided another big play, as he took the snap, rolled to his left, and lofted a pass to a wide-open Boyd, who went 67 yards to paydirt. Although the extra point attempt failed on a bad hold, the Warriors restored their two-possession lead.
From there, the Elizabeth Forward defense was suffocating, forcing a turnover on downs, and intercepting Mount Pleasant Area quarterback Asher O’Connor for a second time, courtesy of Boyd. Elizabeth Forward had permitted just 20 total points through its first four contests, the best scoring average in the district.
With the Warriors in control and deep in Vikings territory, Mount Pleasant Area flexed its defensive muscles, as DaVontay Brownfield was stripped of the football, and Tyler Reese scooped it up and darted 88 yards for the defensive score with 2:29 left.
“I thought the defense played really well,” Fazekas said. “It comes down to some of the turnovers and mistakes that we made.”
Trimming their deficit to two points and with momentum on their side, the Vikings needed a stop on third down to have a final chance to win the game. It was Mrvos who came up big again for Elizabeth Forward, however, as he scampered 34 yards to secure the first down and seal the outcome.
Fazekas praised the play of Mrvos, who tallied 148 yards rushing and 84 yards passing.
“He’s a really special kid there. They got a couple more (players) that are really good, as well,” he said.
Elizabeth Forward also received notable offensive contributions from Brownfield, who had 46 yards on 12 carries, and Boyd, who had two catches for 75 yards.
Instead of potentially clinching the conference title with a victory on Friday, the Vikings will now shift their focus to their regular-season finale on the road against South Park. With the Eagles also losing on Friday, that contest will determine second place in the conference and a guaranteed playoff berth.
“I told the kids it’s going to hurt this weekend — it should hurt them a little bit. But we’ll bring them back in on Monday and get going,” Fazekas said. “This team is doing everything we ask of them — they’re giving us their best effort.”
Elizabeth Forward, which claimed the conference title with the Eagles’ setback, is scheduled to host Southmoreland next week.
Elizabeth Forward 16 Mount Pleasant 14