Homer edges Blairsville in alumni football contest
HOMER CITY -- The last time Ricky Miller strapped on a football uniform for the Homer-Center Wildcats, a gallon of gas was 65 cents and John Travolta was strutting across a lit disco dance floor. When Greg Troxell played with the Blairsville Bobcats, President Reagan challenged Soviet leader Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and the Cosby Show inched by Family Ties on TV.
So when Miller and Troxell caught wind of an Alumni Football game against their longtime rival, they asked their wives for permission to play one of the most brutal, physically demanding sports that they've been resigned to watch being played since graduation.
Last Friday, these two and 85 others between the ages of 18 and 53 returned to Memorial Stadium to defend their alma mater's honor on the gridiron with the help of Alumni Football USA in a game worthy of the schools' traditional rivalry.
"When I found out about the game online, I told my wife that I just had to play," Troxell, who graduated in 1987 and now resides in Lehigh Valley, said while stretching and calming his nerves before the game.
Jokes about being old were frequent because they were easy. Yet, the quality of football was satisfying, and the game came down to the wire with Homer-Center coming away with a 16-12 win.
"You have to remember there are a lot of good football players out here tonight," said Blairsville organizer John Steigert. "We have four or five 1,000-yard rushers, guys who have played Division I and Division II ball, quarterbacks who threw for thousands of yards. I think the problem that both teams had is that there was too much talent; it was hard to get everyone the playing time that they deserved."
Being evenly matched and perhaps overanxious, offenses struggled to move the ball until Blairsville drew first blood with only 1:22 left in the first quarter. Matt Strope of the 2005 Bobcats slashed 10 yards through the Wildcat defense to score, but the extra point kick went wide right, leaving the score 6-0 until Homer Center's speedy Garrett Sisak, 2009, took a quarterback keeper around the end and 35 yards to paydirt. Craig Olsen, 1989, gave the one point edge with the extra point at the 7:30 mark of the second quarter.
Less than two minutes later, Homer Center scored again when Shawn Buggey took a handoff 23 yards to extend the lead. A failed pass attempt for the extra effort put the score at 13-6 Homer Center lead at the half.
One of the plays that would've made the highlight reel was a defensive hit in the first quarter, which was a good time to remind players and fans of the severity of the game. Homer Center's John Zometsky, 1995, caught Bobcat Rich Munsell, 2002, breaking through the line with a handoff and out into the open middle where all could see and hear the crunch when Zometsky lowered the boom.
"It felt the same as it did in high school," Zometsky said about the collision, "Great! That right there was worth it." Zometsky went on to share the defensive MVP honor with Mike Rayko, 1997.
Coming back from halftime, both teams were again slow to get started offensively. There was a scoreless third quarter, but around two minutes into the fourth quarter, Strope struck again with capping Blairsville's longest drive of the game with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone. It was Rayko that came up big by sacking Justin McGinnis, 2009, when Blairsville went for the two-point conversion that would've given them the lead.
Homer Center orchestrated a long drive of their own, connecting on two huge converting pass plays after giving up two delay-of-game calls. At fourth-and-eight on the Blairsville 16, the Wildcats made a crucial call. With 4:03 left to play, they put their faith in a field goal team whose kicker, Jason Buggey, a 1991 graduate, hasn't kicked in 20 years.
"I just picked a spot on the window of the house behind the uprights, and it was like time stood still," said Buggey with a beaming, oversized smile. "Everything was clean, the snap, the hold, everything."
Buggey's field goal gave HC a four-point lead, but the Bobcats went on one final drive to try and win it.
McGinnis went to work with 1:03 and began working the ball down the field and deep into Homer-Center territory. With only 17 seconds left on the clock, McGinnis' quarterback sneak was stopped short at fourth-and-one, but they were able to convert because the Wildcats were caught with 12 men on the field.
McGinnis had one more crack at the end zone with 12 seconds on the clock and 30 yards from a win, but Aaron Stultz, 2008, shut the door on Blairsville with an interception that he ran out of the end zone until the buzzer sounded.
"It was me who was the 12th man," Stultz said. "I had to redeem myself. I wasn't going to bite on the short route because I knew he had to throw it into the end zone, so I read his route and jumped on it."
Stultz went back to school in Cleveland, and the rest of the guys went back to their daily routines; however, they're already talking about next year's rematch. Some things never change.
"This is every Al Bundy's dream," said HC's Erick Skultety, 1999, who has plans of seeing a knee specialist in the coming days after being taken out of the game with an ACL injury. "I knew the risks, but I'll be right back out there doing it again if I get the chance."
About the atmosphere of the night, Steigert said, "It felt like a high school game. The weather's perfect with a little chill in the air, and the fans were great. The only difference was that nobody really cared about who won or lost. It was an awesome night, and it was great to get the opportunity to play again."
Recognized players after the game were: Offensive MVPs Matt Strope for Blairsville and Garrett Sisak for Homer-Center. Defensive MVPs were Scott Harsh for Blairsville and Zometsky and Rayko for HC. The overall MVP was one of the Buggey boys; take your pick.
When asked how he felt after the game and his MVP performance, Zometsky's tune had changed. "I feel terrible," he said. "I'm dreading tomorrow."