HOPEWELL TWP. - If Friday night was any indication, games in the WPIAL Parkway Conference are going to be entertaining for the next three years.
Two sophomores - Hopewell running back Rushel Shell and New Castle quarterback Johnny Matarazzo - each led their respective teams into an undefeated start to the season.
But after trading blow-for-blow offensively in the first half, it was Shell and the Vikings that came away with the 35-27 win at home, taking sole possession of first place in the conference.
"Our kids found a way," Hopewell coach Dave Vestal said. "They always say big players make big plays in big games, and we had some kids step up tonight."
While Shell is used to this kind of spotlight, having already received numerous accolades after racking up more than 1,500 yards as a freshman, it was the game's other sophomore that nearly stole the spotlight.
With Hopewell clinging to a 28-21 lead late in the third quarter, Matarazzo and his Red Hurricanes mounted a massive drive, led by a significant dose of senior running back Keith Keene, a couple of key completions, and a pass interference call against Hopewell. But on the 18th play of that drive, with the ball on the Hopewell 21-yard line, Hopewell defensive back Malcolm Lay stepped in front of Matarazzo's pass at the 7, ending the threat.
"When we came out in the second half, for one reason or another, we lost our focus and didn't come out with a lot of passion and they did," New Castle coach Frank Bongivengo said. "They took advantage of a couple of situations and made some plays and we didn't make some plays that we had the opportunity to make."
From there, Shell continued to show why he is one of the top runners in the WPIAL.
He picked up small gains. He spun through the line of scrimmage. He broke around the left side. And when it was all said and done, he found a big hole on the left side of the line and scampered down the near sideline for a 37-yard touchdown, sealing the win for Hopewell.
"He's a special kid," Vestal said of his running back. "He understands that sometimes he's not always going to score touchdowns. We just kept hammering away and trying to establish our fullback and our quarterback."
Shell finished the game with 146 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
And although he doesn't show his youth on the field, he admitted that he felt like a sophomore before the game.
"I was a nervous wreck at the beginning," Shell admitted.
But whatever nerves he was feeling, he certainly didn't show, as Shell took the opening kickoff 89-yards down the right side for a spectacular touchdown just 15 seconds into the game.
"All I knew is that I was in the pile, then I came outside the pile, and then saw it was me one-on-one with a guy, and I knew I could beat him," Shell said. "And I scored."
Vestal said he nearly missed seeing Shell's runback.
"I'm looking at what play I'm going to call and I never had to call a play because we were in the end zone," Vestal said. "He made it happen. Sometimes he just does not want to be denied. It was a great way to start. We needed that start."
New Castle didn't wait long to respond, however. After not being able to capitalize on a stellar kickoff return on the ensuing kick by Darrian Rice, the Red Hurricanes defense stepped up and managed to find a way to stuff Shell, forcing several consecutive three-and-outs.
Meanwhile, Matarazzo and the offense tied the game up near the end of the first quarter, as the young quarterback found Jayjuan Jay, who leapt over Matt Hundenski in the end zone for the touchdown.
Matarazzo finished the game with a stellar effort of his own, finishing 17-of-30 for 285 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
"Johnny's a very poised young man," Bongivengo said. "He's a heady kid and he made a lot of really nice plays for us tonight. In a big game and a big atmosphere like this, we need him to step up and make those plays, and he really did."
It wasn't until later in the second quarter when things got exciting though, as the two teams combined for four touchdowns in just over four minutes.
After putting together a steady march from their own 41-yard line, Matarazzo lofted a ball up to receiver Marcus Carter for a 29-yard gain to the 1. On the next play, Matarazzo dove into the end zone, giving the visitors a 14-7 lead.
Hopewell responded just 1:19 later, tying the game on a 49-yard touchdown pass from Hundenski to receiver Mark Ross, who caught the ball near the 25-yard line and had a wide open path to the end zone in front of him.
Matarazzo then countered on a 26-yard scoring run of his own, as he dropped back to pass but was forced to scramble around the right side of the line and found open room to regain the lead, which was short-lived.
Less than a minute later, Shell found a huge hole on the left side of his line and turned on the burners as he burst down the left sideline for a 56-yard score.
After all that, it was 21-21 at the half.
Hopewell's only other touchdown came on a drive that was hampered by injuries to both Shell and Hundenski. In their stead, fullback Lay took over the running duties and another sophomore- quarterback Nolan Harmotto - stepped in and piloted a drive down to the New Castle 10-yard line. Hundenski then returned under center and ran two consecutive keepers, one of which resulted in a 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Vikings a 28-21 lead.
Shell explained afterwards that he had been fighting cramps throughout the game.
Trailing by two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter, New Castle attempted to mount a comeback, as Matarazzo connected on three straight passes including a long 48-yard screen play to Rice, then handed off to Keene for a 3-yard touchdown, bringing the Red Hurricanes within eight at 35-27 with 4:15 left to play.
But New Castle never saw the ball offensively again for the rest of the game, although the Vikings did their best to make it interesting.
After several penalties, Hopewell found themselves in a third-and-33 situation inside their own 20-yard line with just over two minutes remaining. Hundenski, however, threw a ball down the left sideline to Ross, who jumped up and made a spectacular catch for a 35-yard gain and a critical first down.
From there, Shell and Lay were able to run out the clock.
"(New Castle) is one of the best teams in AAA," Shell said. "Beating them makes us feel like we can beat anyone right now."
Bongivengo said he's looking forward to playing Hopewell again.
"With a lot of young guys on both teams, there's an opportunity for a while here to have some really good games like this and some really big games," he said. "They came out on top tonight in this game but maybe we'll get to see them down the road again."