SOUTH PARK TWP. — After the opening quarter of Friday’s contest at South Park, Mount Pleasant Area looked to be well on its way to clinching a playoff berth, outright.
The Vikings held a 13-point lead, moving the football with ease, while suffocating the Eagles’ offense. Four turnovers and a litany of penalties against the Vikings changed the complexion completely, as South Park rallied for a 30-19 victory at Eagle Stadium.
As a result, the Eagles clinched a postseason spot in Class 3A as the second-place team in the Interstate Conference. The Vikings, meanwhile, picked up a wild-card berth following their third-place conference finish. Mount Pleasant Area earned the No. 7 seed and will meet No. 2 North Catholic, 7 p.m. Friday at Mars Area High School. A win matches the Vikings with No. 3 Elizabeth Forward or No. 6 Freeport Area in the WPIAL Class 3A semifinals.
South Park sophomore quarterback Harper Conroy enjoyed a breakout performance, as he completed 14 passes for 178 yards and three scores, all of which went to junior receiver Brendan Wood. The Vikings, meanwhile, were paced by Aaron Alakson, who registered 163 yards rushing, including a touchdown.
Two interceptions, two fumbles and 10 penalties for 95 yards provided too many hurdles for the Vikings to overcome, as they suffered their second straight loss to finish 4-2 in conference play, and 4-3 overall.
“I just think we were behind the sticks all the time; we were behind field position,” said Mount Pleasant Area head coach Jason Fazekas.
Although the Vikings failed to sustain a drive on the opening possession of the contest, the Mount Pleasant Area defense forced the first of four consecutive three-and-outs for South Park. The Vikings then engineered a seven-play drive that spanned 70 yards, including a 36-yard scamper by Alakson. Sophomore running back Robbie Labuda capped the drive with a 1-yard run to put the Vikings on the board, although Labuda’s extra point attempt was blocked.
Subsequently, the Mount Pleasant Area defense forced another punt, and with intense pressure on the punter, the ball landed out of bounds for a loss of a yard. With the Vikings beginning the drive at the South Park 39-yard line, quarterback Asher O’Connor immediately took a deep shot down the middle of the field, and Donavin Bair hauled it in for a touchdown to extend the first quarter lead to 13-0.
After another stop by the Vikings’ defense, Mount Pleasant Area committed its first notable mistake, as Jared Yester was stripped on his only carry of the night, and the fumble was recovered by Eli Podgorski.
Although that miscue didn’t prove costly, the next one did, as Adam Johnson intercepted O’Connor in Vikings’ territory.
From there, it was the Eagles (4-2, 4-3) who took an immediate shot down the field, as Conroy connected with Wood on a 29-yard touchdown that gave the Eagles a jolt of momentum.
“I just don’t like the turnover to begin with,” Fazekas stated. “The momentum or whatever is another thing. I just wish we didn’t turn it over so much.”
Later in the quarter, Conroy again found Wood, this time on a 30-yard pass to stake the Eagles to a 14-13 lead. South Park carried a 17-13 edge into the intermission courtesy of a 35-yard field goal as the half expired.
The Vikings also lost a significant contributor in the first half, as starting guard William Eicher suffered an injury, and did not return. Following his exit, the Vikings were unable to replicate the same level of success on the ground.
“That kid was really solid for us this year. That was definitely a big loss for us tonight,” Fazekas said of the sophomore.
Mount Pleasant Area regained the lead in the third quarter, as Alakson broke out for a 64-yard touchdown run while tight-roping the South Park sideline. A mishandled extra point snap, however, led to a failed pass attempt on the conversion, keeping the Vikings’ advantage at two points.
South Park responded with an impressive drive, culminating with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Conroy to Wood. Just a few plays earlier, it appeared as though the Vikings forced and recovered a fumble near the goal line, but the officials conferred and ultimately ruled the runner was down before the ball came loose.
Less than two minutes after the Eagles regained the lead, another O’Connor pass was intercepted, this time by Luke Smith, who returned it 56 yards for a game-changing defensive score.
Trailing by two scores, the Vikings continued to threaten, but another lost fumble, combined with a turnover on downs, ended their hope for a comeback bid.
Aside from Alakson’s big performance on the ground, Labuda provided 57 yards, while Pete Billey again was used in a limited capacity on offense, rushing five times for 26 yards. O’Connor completed just 4-of-13 passes for 94 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.
For the Eagles, Johnson paced the ground game with 57 yards, while Wood caught five passes for 79 yards.
“We don’t want to talk too much right now,” Fazekas noted after a brief discussion with his team following the loss. “No one is happy with what happened tonight.”
But the Vikings are happy with their spot in the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs, as the Mount Pleasant Area season is set to continue on Friday.
South Park 30 Mount Pleasant 19