HEMPFIELD TWP — A 21-point lead with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Yes, North Catholic's football team had a trip to Heinz Field firmly in its grasp against Derry Friday night.
Or so it seemed.
The tide of momentum, which had been on North Catholic's side since late in the first half, swayed to the other side of the field and never returned.
Derry finished the game by scoring 28 unanswered points in claiming a 36-29 WPIAL Class 3A semifinal victory at Hempfield Area High School's Spartan Stadium.
Clinging to a 29-28 lead late in the fourth quarter, North Catholic opted to pass on third-and-9, but Zack Rocco's pass was intercepted by Justin Flack and returned 30 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:46 left in the game. Colton Nemcheck added a two-point conversion run and Derry had its first lead since late in the second quarter.
“We stayed aggressive,” said North Catholic coach Patrick O'Shea. “Derry had just one timeout left and if we pick up a first down, we could've run out the clock.
“No matter what point-lead you have against them, you have to keep playing. I thought we did that. Derry's athletes just made some great plays. That interception return was an incredible effort.”
North Catholic still had time to answer and Rocco led them down the field with passes to Tyree Brown, Nick Maher and Cameron Branch. But on a first-down play from Derry's 32, Flack made yet another clutch play, intercepting Rocco's off-balanced throw at the 8 and returning it 80 yards before being tackled.
The play affectively ended the contest.
Flack, a senior, also rushed for 76 yards and scored two offensive touchdowns on the night.
“If Justin Flack doesn't start getting recruited by colleges, there is something wrong,” said Derry coach Tim Sweeney.
North Catholic missed out on avenging a 27-0 loss to Derry in September.
“Derry got some breaks in the second half tonight and their kids didn't quit,” said O'Shea. “They played Derry football.”
Derry (11-1) found itself down 29-8 following Rocco's 1-yard scoring run with 5:08 left in the third quarter. The former's comeback bid may have fizzled shortly after if not for a pinpoint pass from quarterback Paul Koontz.
Derry was facing a fourth-and-21 from North Catholic's 25-yard line when Koontz connected with wideout Jason Geary for a touchdown.
“We had a wheel route on that play, but the post was open and Paul made a great throw,” Seeeney said.
It was one of just two passes that Derry completed in the game.
Derry scored touchdowns on its first two drives of the fourth quarter — Onreey Stewart's 60-yard jaunt and Flack's 1-yard plunge.
After the second score, which cut North's lead to 29-28 with 2:37 left in the game, Sweeney elected to go for two points. But Koontz was sacked by Eamon Straub and North Catholic retained its slim lead.
“I was confident that we could get the ball back if we didn't score the two points,” said Sweeney, “but even more than that, we were playing to win the game. That's what we do.”
“I was not surprised they went for it,” O'Shea said. “We would have done the same thing if in that situation.”
North Catholic (10-2) gained a huge boost just before halftime when Nikhai Hill-Green took a swing pass from Rocco and raced 49 yards for a score. The play, followed by two points from the same duo, gave North a 15-8 lead with just two seconds left in the second quarter.
“That play was huge,” O'Shea said. “It gave us a lot of confidence and momentum.”
Rocco and Hill-Green combined to give North a first-quarter lead on a 5-yard pass. Derry answered with Flack's 5-yard scoring run with 1:22 left on the first-half clock. Derry would not score again until its rally commenced late in the third quarter.
Following the game, Sweeney made a point to speak with North Catholic's players on the field as a cold rain dampened the team's already sour mood.
“That was a classy move by Coach O'Shea, allowing me to do that,” Sweeney said. “I told them how much I thought of their effort. I thought they were the better team tonight. They were coached better and prepared better than we were.”
O'Shea did not let the disappointment affect his appreciation for what his team accomplished.
“We won 20 games over the last two seasons,” he said. “That is really good and I am proud of the players.”
North Catholic 7 8 14 0 — 29
Derry Area 0 8 7 21 — 36
NC — Nikhai Hill-Green 5 pass from Zack Riocco (Will Kunzmann kick), 6:00
D — Justin Flack 5 run (HNunter Hebenthal pass from Paul Koontz), 1:22
NC — Hill-Green 49 pass from Rocco (Hill-Green pass from Rocco), :02
NC — Anthony Serventi 4 run (Kunzmann kick), 8:27
NC — Rocco 1 run (Kunzmann kick), 5:08
D — Jason Geary 25 pass from Koontz (Robert Boyer kick), 3:35
D — Onreey Stewart 60 run (Boyer kick), 10:21
D — Flack 1 run (run failed), 2:37
D — Flack 30 interception return (Colton Nemcheck run), 1:46