The 48th annual Ken Lantzy Finest 40 All-Star game came down to the wire. With 37 seconds left, the North squad had the ball deep in South territory with coach Don Bailey turning to Berlin Brothersvalley kicker Carter Raupach to win it.
Raupach, who had missed three attempts and had an extra point blocked was down on himself.
“Just mixed emotions; I wasn’t quite sure about myself after missing the first four,” said Raupach. “I was worried about getting blocked, but once it went through everyone started cheering and it made me happy, but I was more worried about whatever was still on the clock.”
Although Raupach had some doubt, Bailey did not.
“We knew Carter could kick all week long, and I’d put him out there any time to kick a field goal,” Bailey said.
The kick put the North team up 17-14, but the South did not pack it in. South quarterback Justin Bezek hooked up with fellow Central Cambria teammate Luke Bennett for a 30-yard gain on first down to put the ball at the 50-yard line, but the North defense stepped up with one last stand to preserve the victory.
The start of the game had the makings of an offensive shootout. The North struck quickly as quarterback Austin Barber connected with his Greater Johnstown teammate Imil Britt for a dazzling 56-yard passing play at the 10:48 mark of the first quarter to grab a 7-0 lead following a Raupach extra point.
Britt finished the day with a game-high nine catches and 189 yards.
Moments later, the South answered in similar big-play fashion. Bezek found Ligonier Valley standout, and Tribune-Democrat Player of the Year, Jackson Daugherty on a pair of big passing plays – the latter of which went for a 48-yard scoring strike. But the extra point was blocked, setting the score at 7-6 with 9:29 left in the first quarter.
That score held through halftime.
The second half opened with another big play, as Bezek threw a 48-yard bomb to Bennett to grab the first lead of the game for the South. Bezek finished the day with 258 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. That performance earned him the MVP of the South backfield.
“It was definitely a pleasure to play one last time,” said Bezek.
Once again, the defenses for both sides took over throughout the remainder of the quarter. Chestnut Ridge’s Noah Dillow led the charge for the South defense with seven tackles. The North was paced by a strong showing from Drew Boyer of Berlin Brothersvalley, who had six stops including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
Clinging to a one-score lead, the South team had to punt to open the game’s final frame.
The kick landed in the hands of Forest Hills’ Jon Long, who wasted little time making something happen. Long darted up the sideline for a 51-yard punt return to tie the game.
From then on out, the strategy for both sides shifted. South coach Greg Page of Homer-Center decided to put the ball in Daugherty’s hands as time started to wind down. The Ligonier Valley standout took over at quarterback and marched his team down the field on the ground. The North defense bent, but did not break, and got the ball back with 4:43 left on the clock.
Bailey executed a similar strategy and kept the ball on the ground and in the hands of his quarterback, Austin Barber.
“On my home field, I had to defend since it was my last time playing here,“ Barber said.
“I just had the will to win and the coach trusted me. He thought I could take it over and I didn’t want to let him down.”
Barber finished the day with 252 passing yards and 80 rushing yards. He was named the North team’s backfield MVP for his performance.
“He’s a great athlete, he threw the ball well tonight and ran the ball exceptionally well,” said Bailey. “Putting the ball in his hands is not a bad place to have it.”
Page was pleased with the whole event.
“Beautiful night, great crowd. Nobody was disappointed,” Page said. “Competitors on both sides of the ball, kids coming together that don’t know each other and then in four days they form bonds, and all the sudden they are playing for each other and that’s a special thing on both sides, and I’m real proud to be a part of that.”
“It comes down to a final play and a final drive, and you can’t ask for more than that in an all-star game.”