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Fans still remember Miracle at the Park

| Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004

It was a typical gray November afternoon.

The No. 1-seeded Riverview Raiders were preparing to take on the Jefferson-Morgan Rockets in the opening round of the 1994 WPIAL Class AA playoffs.

A record crowd filed into Oakmont's Riverside Park, surely not knowing they were about to witness what, several years later, would be dubbed the "Greatest Sports Moment" in Alle-Kiski Valley history.

On Nov. 12, 1994, Riverview tied Jefferson-Morgan in the final minute of play on a 94-yard pass from Jeff Cappa to Ben Erdeljac. The Raiders won it in overtime, 34-28, on Cappa's pass to his twin brother, Jason.

The way the game started out, it looked as if it wouldn't be the most memorable anything. The Rockets dominated play in the first half and led, 14-0, at the intermission.

It would have been worse if Riverview hadn't managed a goal-line stand in the first period after Jefferson-Morgan drove to the Raiders 1.

The Raiders finally got a break on an eight-yard Rockets punt late in the third period. Jeff Cappa's six-yard run made it a 14-7 game. But Jefferson-Morgan responded quickly on a 72-yard scoring run by Xavier Lockette.

Erdeljac scored on a 34-yard pass with 1:49 left in the game to bring Riverview to within 28-22. But Mike McCort broke open for a 46-yard run to the Raiders 5 with 58 seconds to go.

With no time outs, it looked like Jefferson-Morgan was ready to celebrate a major upset. Riverview head coach Jake Cappa was thinking ahead to his postgame speech.

"I was thinking what I was going to tell these kids," coach Cappa recalled. "We were 10-0 and had already beaten (semifinal opponent) Rochester earlier in the year."

On the following play, it was like fate had intervened.

Riverview was out of time outs and all the Rockets had to do was run out the clock. Instead, quarterback Scott Whetsell looked right to handoff to McCort, but McCort already had moved left. Raiders defensive tackle Justin Pappa pounced on the loose ball, and the Raiders had possession at their 6.

"Our center, Andy Flaherty, came over and said we needed a play to run," Cappa said. "I told him to run a one-man pattern with Ben being such a fast player."

Cappa went one better, telling the backs to split to provide for maximum blocking. Erdeljac quickly got past the defender and caught a perfect pass from Cappa at midfield and went into the end zone untouched.

"That was a play we had run before that year," Erdeljac said. "I just ran down the field and the defender didn't stay with me."

As Erdeljac crossed the goal line, pandemonium let loose. Fans were jumping up and down with joy, especially those who had stood in beyond the end zone nearest the school building who saw the play close-up.

Perhaps the funniest part of the wild situation was seen from the press box. Fans who had left early were trying to get back into the stadium, forming a glob of humanity with others leaving early. A couple of motorists even abandoned their vehicles on Third Avenue, running back in to see what all the excitement was about.

"I always hear how people left the game early," Erdeljac said.

Riverview was assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, forcing Orlando Bellisario to try an extra point from the 25. The kick missed, setting up overtime.

The Raiders won the toss and put the Rockets on defense for the overtime session. Four down later, Riverview regained possession and scored on third down as Jeff Cappa led Jason Cappa toward the right side of the end zone. Jason was barely able to snatch the ball and the Raiders celebrated a memorable victory.

"It shows how big that game was," Erdeljac said. "People are still talking about it 10 years later. That game brought out enormous pride in the Oakmont and Verona communities."

"That game is still talked about more than you could ever imagine," coach Cappa said.

Riverview went on to win the semifinal a week later against Rochester and lost the WPIAL finals to Western Beaver at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Raiders had a good football program before that, but the Miracle at the Park victory took the program to the next level. Riverview made the finals three of four years, finnally winning it all in 1997. Before it was through, the Raiders became the the first local team to make the WPIAL eight years in a row and made the Class A semifinals five straight years.

Jake Cappa is retired from coaching and remains Riverview's athletic director.

Erdeljac, a sophomore at the time, later went to Duke University, and is a mathematics teacher and assistant football coach at Mt. Lebanon.

Jason Cappa teaches at a Pittsburgh charter school and is an assistant at Riverview. Jason is the offensive coordinator at Wissahickon High School in suburban Philadelphia.

Steve Dapra has a degree from Boston College and operates a restaurant at Pittsburgh's West Penn Hospital. Orlando Bellisario teaches in Pittsburgh and is an assistant at Fox Chapel.

In a July 31, 1988 Valley News Dispatch supplement, the game was voted the Greatest Sports Moment in a readers poll.

George Guido is a Valley News Dispatch scholastic sports correspondent. His column appears Wednesdays.

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