Cougars come up short

STRASBURG — As the third quarter wound down, the momentum was squarely on Manassas Park’s side. A strong 80-yard run by Jonathan Abrams and an interception by Wallace Brown after the ensuing kickoff put the Cougars in position to pull off an upset against Strasburg.

But the Rams weren’t fazed; they got back to their strength: running the ball.

Strasburg used a drive that chewed nearly eight minutes off the clock that helped seal its 14-6 win over the Cougars on Friday night in the Group A, Division 1, Region B playoffs.

While the drive didn’t yield any points, it kept the Manassas Park offense off the field and, when Manassas Park (6-5) did finally take another snap, they had no choice but to take to the air.

“I thought that drive sealed the win,” said Rams head coach Glenn Proctor. “What it did was take an enormous amount of time off the clock. I made the comment on the sideline that it was a nice drive … it left them with so little time.”

But it wasn’t like the Cougars had been sticking with their ground game all night. Cougar quarterback Daniel Kettler came out firing to his receivers — and although his first two passes were an incompletion and an interception, that helped set the tone.

Manassas Park coach Jeff Lloyd ran a pair of fades, deep routes down the sideline on the Cougars’ first two passing plays of the night. While they weren’t successful, they did serve as a way of opening up the field for shorter, underneath routes.

The strategy worked, even if the Cougars’ execution wasn’t always there. Manassas Park was dogged by dropped passes and procedure penalties, which either eliminated long plays or put the Cougars in position where they needed a big play just for a first down. Still, Kettler completed nine passes to six different receivers, and finished with 129 yards passing.

Manassas Park’s only major mistake of the first half cost them dearly. A bad snap on a punt deep in Cougars’ territory forced Kettler — who also punts — to pull the ball down and run. His play lost eight yards, and gave the Rams possession on the Cougar 22-yard line.

Although Strasburg’s first two plays went for just three yards, Robbie Starkey kept the drive alive with a gorgeous catch, hauling in the ball as he was falling out of bounds.

Two plays later, Nathan Martoncik found the end zone from six yards away. Paul Ziacoma’s PAT made it 7-0 Rams.

The Cougars were frequent visitors to Strasburg’s side of the field, but couldn’t get close enough to even try a field goal. Strasburg was in much the same situation, taking just the seven-point lead into halftime.

Strasburg (11-0) got back to basics as soon as the second half started. After taking the half’s opening kickoff to their own 31, the Rams needed eight plays to go the distance. Strasburg’s John Huntsberger punctuated the drive, plunging in from 2 yards out. Ziacoma added the PAT, and the lead was 14.

The teams traded possessions before Manassas Park began to come alive. After a punt from Strasburg’s Joseph Bauserman landed just inside the end zone, Manassas Park took over on its own 20. They immediately gave the ball to Abrams, who made good yardage up the middle. As he reached the linebackers, he shed a few tackles, and shed a couple more as he reached into the secondary. Abrams got his footing back, and raced the final 65 yards for the touchdown.

The PAT was no good, but the Cougars still had momentum on their side. After the ensuing kickoff, Strasburg started on its own 32. Bauserman — who is also the quarterback — went deep on the first play, but his pass was intercepted by Brown. That only added to the momentum swing. But the Cougars weren’t able to capitalize. Their drive stalled near midfield, and Manassas Park was forced to punt. The Rams got the punt on their own 47.

Strasburg ran off 16 plays before Ziacoma’s 26-yard field goal try missed wide left. Still, the drive did its job: When the Cougars got the ball back, there was less than five minutes left to play — impressive, considering Strasburg’s drive began with less than a minute left in the third quarter.

Each of Manassas Park’s final two drives stalled — they recovered a fumble after turning the ball over on downs on the first drive — and Strasburg was able to run out the clock.

“Our kids have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Lloyd. “We had some penalties in the first half and some dropped passes, and that probably shut down our opportunities to score. But [Strasburg] is the number one team in the state. I told them, ‘Now you know what it takes to get here.’ “

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