AMBRIDGE — With a chance to tie late, Mars steadily churned out yardage and marched from its own 4 to the Central Valley 27-yard line.
Building a 28-21 lead with explosive plays, the Warriors had one more left in them.
On a fourth-and-5, John George picked off Mars quarterback Owen Nearhoof and returned the theft 77 yards for a touchdown to secure Central Valley’s 35-21 victory over the Planets in a WPIAL Class AAA football quarterfinal on Friday night at Moe Rubenstein Stadium.
“It was a slugfest. That was a good football game,” said CV coach Mark Lyons. “It had some great plays from both teams. I thought players on both sides competed very well.”
The Warriors (10-1) took control early in the second half.
Jordan Whitehead took the opening kickoff of the third quarter through a wedge up the middle and broke loose for a 92-yard return touchdown.
Whitehead was bottled up for much of the game on the ground, but took a pitch on a third-and-2 and accelerated through a hole for a 74-yard touchdown scamper to give Central Valley a 28-14 cushion with 5:55 to go in the third quarter.
“Jordan Whitehead is a great football player. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Mars coach Scott Heinauer. “He came up big. ... He’s the difference in the game.”
The Planets began the second half with three consecutive three-and-outs, but began to build some momentum toward the end of the third quarter.
Mars drove 72 yards in 12 plays, capping the imperative possession with a 4-yard touchdown run from Josh Schultheis, which cut the deficit to 28-21 with 10:43 remaining in the game.
The Warriors picked up one first down before the Planets forced a punt to set up a potential game-winning drive.
Schultheis racked up 50 of his 83 yards on the pivotal drive, but had to leave after being shaken up on a 14-yard first-down run to the CV 33.
Ori Rinaman took the next handoff 2 yards and Jason Lozzi picked up 3 more, but a Nearhoof pass fell incomplete before the game-sealing interception return.
“Our football team played its heart out,” said Heinauer. “It’s a credit to our seniors and our kids.
“They came back,” he added. “We had an opportunity and it just didn’t work out for us.”
Central Valley struck first in the contest on a 2-yard TD plunge from Preston Johnson for a 7-0 edge at the three-minute mark of the first quarter.
The possession found second life after Brandon Wilson took a reverse handoff on a fake punt and went 27 yards on a fourth-and-2 from the Mars 46.
The scoring drive spanned 89 yards in 14 plays. The Warriors converted four third downs on the march.
Mars immediately responded with a nine-play, 50-yard scoring drive. Nearhoof hit Travis Ganter in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown to even the score with 11:53 to go in the first half.
After a CV three-and-out, Mars marched 55 yards in 10 plays for a 14-7 lead.
Nearhoof connected with Jason Lozzi for a 22-yard gain on a fourth-and-5 from the CV 40, before Lozzi scored on a 6-yard run with 5:40 left in the half.
The Planets had a chance to seize complete control after George fumbled a snap, initially recovered but tried to throw a backwards pass. The loose ball rolled downfield and Lozzi recovered on the CV 30-yard line.
However, Whitehead intercepted Nearhoof in the end zone on a jump ball to Ganter on the very next play.
“They had us on our heels a little bit there,” Lyons acknowledged. “He made a great pick in the end zone and that kind of changed momentum.”
The Warriors (10-1) will play Thomas Jefferson (11-0) in the semifinals next week.