Eighty-seven yards and a physical defense stood between Lackawanna Trail and a District 2 Class 1A championship.
As the seconds ticked away, the Lions methodically pounded their punishing fullback, Ray Melnikoff into Old Forge’s front.
Then, on a quick strike, Miguel Ella came up with the team’s catch and play of the year.
His reception and touchdown lifted second-seeded Lackawanna Trail to a 22-19 win over top-seeded Old Forge on Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Lackawanna Trail (7-3) earned its second straight title and 10th overall, and will travel to face District 1 champion Morrisville in the subregional championship on Friday night.
“This means so much to me,” said Ella, who missed all of last season’s memorable run to the PIAA Class 1A final and several games this fall because of injuries. “Coming back this season, it’s really emotional because that was my first touchdown. I am so proud of this team. We worked so hard for this.”
Lackawanna Trail’s final drive ticked off almost the entire 7 minutes and 24 seconds that remained when it took possession trailing 19-14.
Old Forge (8-2) had one final shot to reclaim the lead, but after a sack with a penalty for an illegal touch and then an incompletion, Ella broke up a desperation heave on fourth down.
“That was amazing,” Ella said. “I have no words. I am truly just speechless.”
Lackawanna Trail, as it did last season, avenged a regular-season loss to the Blue Devils.
Quarterback Nico Berrios, who fired the game-winning touchdown pass to Ella, threw for 90 yards and ran for 41 yards and a game-tying touchdown on an 8-yard run in the second quarter.
“This is so special,” Berrios said. “We spent so much time and effort in practice for this. Emotionally, it was so crazy.”
Melnikoff broke tackles and ran for 118 yards and ripped off a 43-yard touchdown to start the second half that gave the Lions a 14-7 lead with 10:28 on the clock.
“Coach (Steve) Jervis always says the first minutes of a half and the last few in the game are the most important,” Melnikoff said. “Scoring right out of the half in a tie game in the district championship game, you can’t draw it up any better.”
A returning All-Region and all-state battering ram, Melnikoff, accounted for 45 yards on the ground, a 17-yard reception and a 2-point conversion run during the final 16-play drive.
“It all starts with the coaches,” Melnikoff said. “They had the confidence in us. We just kept grinding. The most important thing was that we had confidence in each other.
“We had a lot of bad plays, some dumb penalties, but we never lost confidence in each other and that was the difference in the game,” he said.
Old Forge, which entered the rematch with the Lions as the No. 2 Class 1A team in the state according to Pennlive.com, got 187 yards passing from junior quarterback Dante Lucarelli.
He found Tyler Carey seven times for 116 yards, which included a key 38-yard reception in the second quarter that led to a 1-yard scoring run by Hezekiah Deitz, and a 31-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Blue Devils a 19-14 lead with 7:25 to play.
Colin Holzman led the Blue Devils defense with 13 solo tackles.
Old Forge, however, lost three fumbles in the second half and finished with 60 yards rushing on 28 carries.
“Can’t turn the ball over in big games,” Old Forge coach Michael Schuback said. “I think we really stopped ourselves. You can’t have penalties and turnovers in a championship game.
“Holzman is the face of the team. He is just a football player.”
Trail 22, Old Forge 19
Trail 0 7 7 8 22
Old Forge 0 7 6 6 19
OF - Deitz 1 run (Krenitsky kick). 10:33
LT - Berrios 8 run (Melnikoff kick). 1:03
LT - Melnikoff 43 run (Melnikoff kick). 10:28
OF - Pepsin 1 run (kick blocked). :37
OF - Carey 31 pass from Lucarelli (run failed). 7:25
LT - Ella 10 pass from Berrios (Melnikoff run). :56
First Downs 12 12
Rush-Att-Yards 46-165 28-60
Comp-Att-Int 5-7-0 13-24-0
Passing Yards 90 187
Total Yards 255 247
Punts-Average 7-34.0 4-28.0
Fumbles-Lost 4-1 4-3
Penalties-Yards 9-80 6-46
Rushing: LT – R. Melnikoff 23-118, 1 TD; N. Berrios 15-41, 1 TD; J. Resto 4-7; K. Cresswell 3-0; Team - 1-(-1). OF – H. Deitz 13-41; C. Holzman 4-17, 1 TD; K. Pepsin 7-9, 1 TD; M. DiGregorio 1-(-1); D. Lucarelli 3-(-6).
Passing: LT – N. Berrios 5-7-0, 90, 1 TD. OF – D. Lucarelli 13-24-0, 187, 1 TD.
Receiving: LT – J. Resto 2-30; M.Ella 1-10, 1 TD; R. Melnikoff 1-17; K. Cresswell 1-33. OF – T. Carey 7-116, 1 TD; M. DiGregorio 4-47; J. Lynwood 1-8; Z. Weaver 1-16.