Ligonier Valley head coach Roger Beitel described Haden Sierocky’s breakout performance against Shady Side Academy as one from a “Disney movie.”
With his six touchdowns, game-winning score and victory-clinching interception, the sophomore quarterback led the Rams to a dramatic and record-setting 53-48 victory against Shady Side Academy in a WPIAL Class 2A Allegheny Conference matchup played Friday at Weller Field.
With the Rams trailing 48-45, Sierocky rushed for a 15-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-10 with 1:13 remaining in the fourth quarter as he scrambled — narrowly avoiding two tackles — to score with the game on the line.
“They told me either to pass Matthew (Marinchak) or run it in,” Sierocky said. “I saw the defense come over, and I knew that I could make my move and score a touchdown.”
Shady Side Academy quarterback Josh Castro looked to drive his team downfield to reclaim the lead, but Sierocky intercepted a deflected pass inside SSA’s half of the field with 35 seconds remaining to clinch Ligonier Valley’s record-setting victory.
“You don’t really get many moments like that when you’re (on the road) all the time,” Sierocky said. “And for a sophomore, I feel like I did pretty good today, and it was special to do it at home.”
Ligonier Valley finished its season with a 2-2 record in the conference and 4-3 overall, making it a school-record sixth season in a row with a non-losing mark.
The Rams also reached another milestone in remaining unbeaten at home for five consecutive seasons. The program’s last defeat at Weller Field was a 35-13 setback in October 2015 against Central Martinsburg.
“For us to go 4-3 and be undefeated at home and have a winning record this season, I couldn’t be more proud of our kids,” Beitel said.
Sierocky led the Rams with 190 rushing yards on 21 attempts. He also went 3 of 11 passing for 38 yards. Nick Beitel rushed 19 times for 175 yards, including a touchdown.
“We had a really good one-two punch going with (Sierocky) and Nick running the ball tonight,” Beitel said.
Ligonier Valley struggled all night to contain Castro, who finished the game with 500 total yards. He rushed for 344 yards on 25 carries, and threw 7 of 19 for 156 yards with an interception. The senior quarterback was involved in all seven of SSA’s scores, including five rushing touchdowns and two passing.
“What a great football player,” Beitel said. “We just couldn’t tackle him. He looked like Superman out there … He was a one-man wrecking crew tonight. We’ve got to do a better job tackling — that’s for sure.”
The Rams started the back-and-forth contest by forcing a turnover just three plays into SSA’s opening drive.
Ligonier Valley struck one play later for the game’s first score with a bit of trickery off a double reverse when Grant Dowden hit Sierocky on a 25-yard pass to put the Rams ahead 6-0 just 53 seconds into the game.
“The difference in this football game was the first possession that we stole in the first half,” Beitel said. “That ultimately was the difference in the football game. We couldn’t stop each other. And for us, we were able to steal that one possession, capitalize and get a score.”
After forcing SSA into a turnover on downs, the Rams took over with six minutes left in the first quarter, driving 96 yards to score. Beitel broke a tackle and kept his balance to break free for a 75-yard touchdown to make it 12-0.
But Shady Side Academy responded with a six-play 65-yard scoring drive of its own. Castro used gains of 15, 17 and 18 to eventually punch it in for a one-yard touchdown to make it 12-7 with less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Sixteen seconds into the second quarter, Sierocky scored a 54-yard rushing touchdown, running down the left sideline behind Marinchak’s downfield blocking to make it 18-6.
Ligonier Valley’s defense then forced SSA to punt, which set the Rams up for a six-play, 42-yard scoring series. Sierocky scrambled for a 17-yard gain a play before keeping the ball for a 11-yard touchdown to make it 25-7 after a George Golden kick with 7:13 remaining in the half.
“I was feeling hot,” Sierocky said of becoming the first Rams player to score six touchdowns in one game. “...The record wasn’t in my head during the game, though. I was just focused on winning.”
With the Rams ahead by 18 points, Shady Side Academy came storming back on the first play of its next drive.
Castro hit Joey Bellinotti for a 78-yard strike to make it 25-14, just 18 seconds after Ligonier Valley scored.
The Rams had to punt on fourth-and-long on their next drive, which set up SSA for another scoring drive as Castro went up the middle for a 65-yard score to pull within five points at 25-20 with three minutes left in the half.
However, Beitel returned the following kickoff 54 yards, and with a 15-yard penalty on SSA, to set Ligonier Valley at the 22-yard line. Sierocky hit Miles Higgins for a 22-yard touchdown pass as Higgins dragged at least four SSA defenders with him into the end zone.
“Our kids made big plays at the right times,” Beitel said. “Returns in the kicking game set us up for big things.”
But Castro hit Bellinotti again from 24 yards out to make it 31-27 with more than a minute remaining in the half.
The Rams opened the third quarter by driving 55 yards during a nine-play series to make it 38-27 as Sierocky scored off a one-yard run.
Just as it went all game, however, Shady Side Academy answered with a nine-play drive gaining 53 yards to set up Castro for a 12-yard touchdown run with 3:50 left in the third to cut the Rams’ lead to four.
After a Ligonier Valley three-and-out, Castro drove his team 29 yards to rush for a four-yard TD to give Shady Side Academy its first lead of the game at 41-38, three seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Rams responded during a four-minute, 73-yard drive which set up Sierocky for a nine-yard rushing score to give Ligonier Valley a 45-41 lead.
On a third-and-five three plays into SSA’s next series, Castro found a seam rushing 72 yards up the middle to put his team ahead, 48-45, with 6:47 left in the game.
But on Homecoming night, and just the Rams’ second home game of the season, this Ligonier Valley team did not let its fans go home disappointed.
They just wouldn’t.
The Rams drove 60 yards during an 11-play series to set up Sierocky’s game-winning touchdown. Ligonier Valley sealed its narrow three-point victory when Sierocky intercepted a pass with 35 seconds left to play.
The Rams’ milestone victory means the team finished with a non-losing record for a sixth straight year, a school record. The previous school record was five consecutive years with a non-losing record, shared by J.D. Jones once and Beitel twice in 17 seasons.
Beitel reflected on finishing the season with home-victory after playing five of its first six games on the road.
“For these kids with COVID-19 and the switching of the conference … all the other teams that they played for, they have set all kinds of records,” he said. “But for our kids, one of the big things is to say that they are the ones that got the sixth season in a row with a winning record. Now they are all alone … So, for us to extend that streak was phenomenal.”
Ligonier Valley also completed its first season in the WPIAL in more than 50 years after having spent the last five decades as a member of PIAA District 6, the last 20 of those as a member of the Heritage Conference.
“I think we proved a lot of people wrong (this season),” Beitel said. “...We have a long way to go.”
The Rams entered the 2020 season, which was cut short because of the coronavirus (COVID-19), with their smallest roster (30 players) since Beitel started coaching at Ligonier Valley in 2004.
Outside linebacker Derek Fox was the Rams’ lone senior this season on a team that also had zero freshmen.
“We got a lot out of Derek, and the sophomores and juniors stepped up,” Beitel said. “We are still in the developmental road. We are really excited for what the future holds.”
Ligonier Valley 53 Shady Side Acad. 48