WALKERSVILLE — After a week of reshuffling along the offensive line due to illness and injury, Walkersville’s homecoming game with Catoctin was naturally going to be decided by physical, tough-sledding yards near the goal line, the kind of situation where line play is paramount.
So, the Lions put in their monster formation, as they tend to do in those situations, and junior running back Mark Merica got nervous, as he tends to do every time the Lions line up like that.
“I was freaking out,” he said. “I really get nervous when coach calls monster because I don’t know if I am going to [get into the end zone] or get stopped short. It’s a lot of pressure.”
But Walkersville has built a successful football program on simple plays like counter runs, and by the time Merica took the handoff from junior quarterback Andrew Stroka, there was plenty of open field in front of him.
Merica’s 5-yard touchdown run — his third scoring run of the game — on Walkersville’s second play in overtime carried the Lions to a dramatic 34-31 victory over previously unbeaten Catoctin that featured five lead changes, including three inside of the final 1 minute, 51 seconds of regulation.
“I just started crying,” Walkersville senior receiver Jake Hess said upon seeing Merica dart over the right side on a counter behind junior fullback Nate Wolf and into the end zone for the winning score.
Merica was so overcome with emotion that he made a U-turn in the corner of the end zone and proceeded to sprint most of the length of his own sideline to celebrate the win.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I was just really happy.”
Hess, who caught a dart from Stroka on fourth-and-7 with just over three minutes to play to keep hope alive for Walkersville, was not in for the game-winning play because the Lions were in their monster formation that takes receivers off the field in favor of bigger blockers.
“I was just sitting on my knees on the sideline, thanking God,” Hess said after Merica scored.
Walkersville (5-1) won despite coughing up a 20-7 halftime lead, despite allowing an 85-yard kickoff return to Catoctin’s Travis Fields with 1:38 to play in regulation that tied the game at 28 and despite falling behind 31-28 in overtime on a 20-yard field goal by the Cougars’ Simon Granados.
“This was a wild game,” Walkersville coach Joe Polce said in somewhat of an understatement.
After surrendering two scoring drives that spanned 65 yards or more to start the second half, Walkersville saw its 13-point halftime lead morph into a 21-20 deficit with 25 seconds to play in the third quarter.
But the Lions answered with an epic drive of their own, an 80-yard march over 21 plays that, much like the game-winner, was capped by a Merica run over the right side out of the monster formation. This one was from 2 yards out.
Leading 26-21, Walkersville smartly opted to attempt the 2-point conversion with 1:51 to play, and Stroka converted it on a pass to sophomore tight end Jeremiah Franklin.
However, Catoctin (5-1) turned the tide once again on the ensuing kickoff as Fields sailed down the sideline and into the end zone to pull the Cougars even.
“I thought we had won the game. I can not believe we gave up that kickoff return,” Polce said.
In a game full of momentum swings, there were two major ones at the end of the first half, as the teams chose to stray from their trademark running games.
Leading 20-7 with 1:47 to play before halftime, Walkerville took over on its own 41.
After a 2-yard run by Merica, the Lions decided to put the ball in the air, and Stroka’s pass was batted up into the air and intercepted.
“In hindsight, I would have just run the ball and gotten to the half,” Polce said.
Now with a sudden chance to cut into the lead, Catoctin marched to the 1-yard line on three runs by junior running back Carson Sickeri.
It was now third-and-goal. There were 14.5 seconds to play in the half, and the Cougars were out of timeouts.
Instead of trying to plow it in with another run, Catoctin called a pass play, and Ryan Orr’s throw to the back corner of the end zone was intercepted by Hess.
“It was a horrendous call on my part,” said Cougars coach Doug Williams, who was concerned about time running out if his team was stopped on a running play. “Just a terrible call. You’ve got the ball on the 1-yard line, and I call a pass. Who does that?”
Williams added that play call was going to haunt him “for a long time.”
When the game was over, Polce wanted to point out the effort of senior tight end Andrew Brooks, who moved to offensive guard since the Lions were so banged up on the line.
“A lot of high school kids don’t want to do that kind of stuff. He did a really unselfish thing,” Polce said. “We wouldn’t have won the game without his sacrifice. We had nobody else to put in there.”