BRIDGEPORT - Much of the summer and early season talk about Wheeling Park has centered around how there was a big, experienced line to go along with the school's rich crop of skill positions.
At Bridgeport, the discussions focused on how the team has as much depth at running back as it ever has and a returning starter at every spot up front.
So of course when the Patriots and Indians met Friday at Wayne Jamison Field, none of it really mattered. Once again this annual Week 2 clash came down to one kick.
With 5 seconds left on the clock Liam Casey booted a 26-yard field goal to give the Patriots a 17-14 victory. It marks the fourth consecutive season that the Park-Bridgeport game has been decided by the kicker. Connor Kornbrath gave the Indians victories with game-winning field goals in 2010 and 2011. Last season, Bridgeport missed a field goal that gave the Patriots a 14-13 victory. Now, Casey adds his name to one of the most heart-wrenching streaks in the state.
"There were times before last year started where I thought we would probably be better off going for two every time," Wheeling Park coach Chris Daugherty said. "It's a credit to the work ethic Liam has because now, he is a guy who I think can go on and kick at the next level.
"I thought we made a lot of key plays down the stretch, the little plays that maybe we haven't made on this field before. Then Liam went out there and made the kick. They (Bridgeport) did everything there were supposed to, they iced him twice."
The victory improved the Patriots to 2-0 and dropped Bridgeport to 1-1.
The game couldn't have started much better for the Indians. On Park's third play from scrimmage, a fumble by quarterback Zach Phillips was recovered by A.C. Caldera. The Indians turned the turnover into points when Alex Thorne scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:43 left.
Thorne forced a fumble on the Patriots' next possession and the Indians went to work on the ground again. The drive stalled in Park territory, forcing a punt that was downed at the 14.
The missed opportunity didn't take long to turn the tide on Bridgeport. On a first-down carry, Geremy Paige broke free for an 86-yard touchdown run. He appeared to be in trouble at the line of scrimmage but a couple of shifty moves got him to the edge where he darted past the Bridgeport secondary untouched.
The next drive for the Indians lasted two plays before Mitchell Winkie fumbled giving the ball back to the Patriots. Phillips immediately hit Eric Banks for a 45-yard pass play. Savion Johnson followed with a 6-yard touchdown run.
"I don't think we handled the adversity very well in the first half," Bridgeport coach Josh Nicewarner said. "We couldn't have been in any better position early on. We went out there and forced those turnovers. They (Park) did handle the adversity though.
"I thought we did a little better with that in the second half. We had some younger guys that came in and did their job. I've made it clear that it doesn't matter if it's a freshman or a sophomore, if they can make a play and show some mental toughness then they are going to be on the field. If you aren't going to show that toughness on every play, then they better get used to being on the sideline."
A total of six plays and a span of 1:05, the Patriots went from being down 7-0, to leading by a touchdown.
"I thought we moved the ball methodically most of the game but those two big plays really turned things around," Daugherty said. "It's nice to have both aspects to your offense."
The second half was mostly one where both teams moved the ball before the other side's defense bore down when it mattered. That is, until Bridgeport's Anthony Bonamcio picked up a 35-yard gain on third down in the fourth quarter. The senior running back got the call on five of the six following plays, capping the drive with a 4-yard TD run that made it 14-14 with 5:26 to play.
Bonamico finished with 171 yards on 29 carries.
Park took a page out of the Bridgeport playbook by electing to chew up the remainder of the fourth quarter rather than looking for a quick-strike play. Phillips completed clutch pass plays to Chalmer Moffett and Michael Grove on the drive to set up Casey's game-winner.
"I'm probably the least surprised person here," Nicewarner said in regard to the fashion in which the game ended. "That's why you play games like these. It's two good football teams."
Paige and Johnson combined for 202 yards on the ground for the Patriots who were again without Bryce Ingram, an injured back who ran for more than 1,000 yards last season.