SULLIVAN TWP. — With Black River clinging to a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter Friday against Wellington, Pirates coach Al Young considered one option and one option only.
Give Matt Joppeck the rock — again, again, again, again, again, again, again and again.
Led by an epic eight-play, 74-yard drive by its hard-charging senior fullback, Black River held on to beat the Dukes 24-13 at Art Stevenson Field.
The Pirates (4-4, 4-1) are a win over Buckeye (2-6, 2-3) away from clinching their first Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division title.
“You know what? He’s the horse,” Young said of Joppeck. “You’ve got to ride him because he’s the man.”
Joppeck was all that and more in the clutch, when the Pirates were facing a near-desperate situation. Black River was without a first down in nearly two quarters, without starting quarterback Dakota Kuntz (finger) and nearly without do-all Jake O’Connor (15 carries, 62 yards), who returned to the game after sustaining a hard hit.
The 74 yards in front of Black River may as well have been 174, so Young stamped “U.S. Mail” to the back of No. 25’s black and gold jersey and he delivered.
Running trap after trap to the right, Joppeck (26 carries,
155 yards, three TDs) rumbled for 18, 14, 8, 6 and 5 yards while bulldozing defenders.
A motion penalty pushed the Pirates back to the Wellington 28, but Joppeck went up the middle for 5 yards and dove over a tackle to pick up 7 on a key third-and-5. He capped the one-man show with 3:49 left on a devastating 16-yard TD in which he shook off a Dukes defender who was hanging onto Joppeck’s jersey for dear life.
That’s the definition of clutch, folks.
“I was so tired on that last drive,” said Joppeck, who atoned for a lost fumble in the third quarter. “It feels so good. … After that fumble, I knew Coach was going to yell at me, but I didn’t let it bring me down.
“It was a pretty good feeling. I liked it. Coach Young can count on me and he trusts me.”
Had it not been for the Pirates’ pack of rabid wolves on defense, Joppeck would have never gotten an opportunity to ice the win.
Wellington (3-4, 3-2) clawed its way back into the game with key adjustments that gave it great field position. Clay Wright (11 carries, 16 yards) capped a 64-yard drive late in the third quarter from a yard out, while Austin Fullen (seven carries, 57 yards) ran 28 yards to bring the score to 18-13.
The Dukes then got the ball back early in the fourth quarter and drove to the Pirates 26. Facing fourth-and-1, quarterback Dylan Weidrick (10-for-22, 132 yards, three interceptions) rolled right and uncorked a ball to the sideline for Devin Broadwater — a play that secured a key third down earlier in the drive — but Pirates cornerback Robbie Douche pushed Broadwater out of bounds before he could get his feet down. Joppeck’s heroics were next.
“I did what I had to do,” Douche said.
Douche certainly wasn’t alone, as John Guilford used every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame to pick off a swing pass in the first quarter that led to a Black River score, while Jon Sas, Talon Wood, Guilford and Austin Jones came up with key sacks.
The Dukes finished the game with just 88 yards rushing and Weidrick could never get comfortable as Pirates defensive coordinator Ted Gordon dialed up blitzes in passing situations.
“I think Wellington’s huge because it’s always a backyard rivalry,” Wood said. “To come out on top is a breath of fresh air for us. We all thrive on Black River hitting. A big hit excites us more than anything. If we can hit them hard, that’s what we want to do.
“We’re hungrier than ever. We’re going to do what we need to make that (division title) happen.”
Black River jumped out to an 18-0 lead on drives that started from Wellington’s 24, 15 and 30. Joppeck bowled in from 7 yards after getting a key lead block from O’Connor, while O’Connor scored on a 13-yarder just 52 seconds later after a Wellington three-and-out.
Joppeck added a 30-yarder two plays after Guilford’s interception, and Black River was on the verge of blowing it open.
The Dukes didn’t quit, and that’s what disappointed but proud coach Matt Stoll pointed to.
“Our kids came back real nice and played tough,” Stoll said. “It looked kind of bleak for a little bit and we were able to get some momentum back. It’s a tough loss, especially to our rivals. It makes it hurt extra bad.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.