WHEELING - Kasey Opic has never been considered a thief. But the 6-foot, 250-pounder pulled off a huge heist Thursday night at Wheeling Island Stadium.
With St. John Central trailing rival Bridgeport 6-0 with less than five minutes remaining in their McDonald's OVAC Kickoff Classic, and the Bulldogs in possession of the football deep in their own territory, Opic turned the game around on one play.
The senior defensive end stripped the ball from a Bulldog runner and rambled 25 yards to paydirt as the Irish rallied for a stunning, 14-6, victory.
"I just ripped it out and took it," Opic said in describing his first career touchdown while being congratulated by the Irish faithful. "I knew I was going to score."
Four plays later, Alex Francis stepped in front of a Bridgeport pass and returned it 23 yards for an insurance touchdown. Dario Paolina was successful on both PATs, the first coming when Levi Spencer got a bad snap down just in time for the placement.
The defensive six-pointers made a winner of first-year head coach Jason Merryman in his debut.
"What can you say about that?" Merryman asked of Opic's strip-and-run. "We preach all the time about getting turnovers, pursuing the ball. We tell the kids the ball is always out there and Kasey is the strongest player on our team. He was there to make the play."
Bridgeport seemed in control of the defensive-minded game as Rudy Vavrock's squad had one good offensive drive that resulted in its 6-0 lead.
Starting at their 32, the Bulldogs, who lost a yard on first down, marched 69 yards on seven plays. Two plays highlighted the possession as sophomore quarterback Bailey McGrath connected with Dallas Fields on a 20-yard screen pass before McGrath scrambled to his left for 32 yards. Fields spun his way off the right side of the line and into the end zone from 3 yards out on the next play.
Following a pair of crucial 5-yard penalties against the mistake-prone Bulldogs, a two-point pass attempt fell short.
Bridgeport had a chance to salt the game away when sophomore Jacob Ray recovered a fumbled punt by St. John Central at the Irish 24 on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Bulldogs gave the ball right back two plays later.
Two series later, Opic ignited the Irish comeback.
A chop block against Bridgeport on the ensuing kickoff set the Bulldogs back to their own 16. A pair of 2-yard losses preceded a 10-yard sack of McGrath by Irish senior Kolin Melko. On fourth-and-14, McGrath's pass was picked by Francis in the middle of the field. He broke to his right and dove inside the pylon for six points as the lead grew to 14-6.
"I saw the line to my right, so I went to the outside and got to the end zone," Francis said with a huge smile.
Despite the late misfortunes, Bridgeport still found itself with a chance to tie the game in the waning moments.
Starting at its 32, McGrath and Fields combined for a pair of 12-yard pass-and-run connections that moved the ball past midfield. McGrath then found Colin Cooper over the middle for a 24-yard gain that pushed the pigskin to the Irish 11. Fields picked up 3 yards on another pass reception, and McGrath spiked the ball to stop the clock with a tad under 30 ticks remaining.
After a delay of game penalty against Bridgeport, a third-down pass fell incomplete and then Fields caught a swing pass and got 4 yards, but needed a dozen more.
"We just came up short," Vavrock noted. "We had a chance to tie it, but just couldn't get the ball in the end zone at the end there. I thought our defense played well the whole game, but no excuses, we just didn't get it done. We hurt ourselves at times with penalties, but the kids battled back. They gave a tremendous effort all the way to the end."
St. John Central 14, Bridgeport 6
Bridgeport 0 6 0 0 - 6
St. John Central 0 0 0 14 - 14
B: Fields 3 run (pass failed)
SJC: Opic 25 fumble return (Paolina kick)
SJC: Francis 23 interception return (Paolina kick)
RUSHING: Bridgeport 36-58-td (McGrath 11-32, Fields 17-16-td, Pritchett 5-9, Britton 3-1). St. John Central 16-26 (Shoemaker 15-41, Francis 5-24, Hennessey 6-4, Alvey 1-1, Paolina 4-(-6).
PASSING: Bridgeport 10-19-109-int (all by McGrath). St. John Central 3-18-76 (Shoemaker 2-8-69, Spencer 1-1-7, Paolina 0-3).
RECEIVING: Bridgeport 10-109 (Fields 7-62, Cooper 3-47). St. John Central 3-76 (all by Francis).
FIRST DOWNS: Bridgeport 8. St. John Central 6.
PENALTIES: Bridgeport 11-85. St. John Central 4-40.
FUMBLES-LOST: Bridgeport 4-2. St. John Central 3-1.