CHERRY HILL – At some point on Wednesday night, a large group of Cherry Hill High School West football fans, students and alumni learned they missed one of the greatest finishes in Lions history.
It would have been hard to fault them for their exodus, which left nothing but metal bleachers in the middle of the home stands. After all, West trailed by six points with 46 seconds left as archrival Cherry Hill East took over on downs.
The rest of the game proved the difference between improbable and impossible.
Lorenzo Hernandez’s 4-yard run in overtime gave West a 26-20 win over rival East. In all purple, the Lions celebrated with their teenage classmates who cascaded over the waist-high chain link fence around Michael J Santarpio Jr. Field.
The Lions hoisted the golden Boot trophy in a mob in the middle of a muddy field as Rene Rosario wandered aimlessly.
“I am in disbelief,” the senior wide receiver/defensive back said. “Absolute disbelief.”
For the third consecutive year, the township belongs to the Lions (4-6). The rivalry game between two teams with losing records went from the sublime to the ridiculous and everywhere in between.
The game’s end contained enough for a movie script.
With 46 seconds left in regulation, the Cougars needed one first down to ice the game.
Three runs prompted three West timeouts. Following an East punt, Lions’ quarterback Andy Valentin took the field with 24.7 seconds left at East’s 42-yard line.
“I had to make something happen,” Valentin said. “I had the mindset I would score. I trust my guys.”
Valentin hit Harrison Hand for 22 yards on second down, then spiked the ball.
With four seconds left from the 20-yard line, Valentin dropped back, then back farther and to his right. At the last second before a sack, he heaved a ball to the middle of the end zone where Quincy Jenkins caught it, falling backwards.
“I had to make a play,” Jenkins said. “The ball is in the air, it’s mine. That’s how I feel.”
With no time left, the extra point was kicked wide left.
The Cougars (2-8) failed to move the chains on their OT possession, which ended with a Hand interception on fourth down. Then, the team in white and red held strong on first, second and third downs.
Again, Valentin had the magic in his right hand. He found Hand for a 21-yard gain on fourth-and-11.
Hernandez scored on the next play with help of some push from his offensive linemen.
“I knew I was in,” he said, the ball still clutched in his hand. “I felt (offensive lineman) Sameer Parks pushing me.”
Wednesday’s quirky contest started with an onside kick off the foot of a Cougars’ offensive lineman. After a score from East and a stop on defense, receiver M.J. Frazier caught a deflected pass and ran it in for a touchdown. Frazier’s score had the looks of an accidental hook-and-lateral.
West showed its resiliency with a touchdown run from Valentin, trimming the deficit to 12-7. In the second half, the Lions willfully surrendered a safety when punter Issac Parkinson ran out of the end zone.
Leading by seven points, the Cougars padded their lead to 20-7 lead on quarterback Vincent Guckin’s 43-yard run.
East appeared to have the game in hand. But two snaps after a turnover on downs for West in the red zone with 11:44 set up a Lions’ touchdown run by Hernandez with about 10 minutes left.
Rosario recovered the ensuing onside kick. Penalties pushed West back to punt, but the Lions forced a three-and-out on the next drive.
West could not get the punch it needed until another turnover on downs led to the fateful Cougars’ possession that gave the ball back to Valentin.
“This is a group of guys that don’t stop,” coach Brian Wright exclaimed in his postgame speech. “You need to be commended.”
Commendation came in the form of The Boot trophy. Some teammates kissed it. Others passed it around for photo ops.
DAS BOOT pic.twitter.com/mOdgcfalfw— Mark Trible (@Mtrible) November 26, 2015
“I love it,” Hand said. “We never lose to East.”
Wright stood and held the hand of his 7-year-old daughter Avianna as the lights started to be turned off at Jonas C. Morris Stadium.
“No, not like that,” he said about his experience with games of Wednesday’s excitement. “Our kids believed until the end.”
And Rosario, who still might be wandering around the field looking for an explanation, gave the final verdict.
“The Boot stays where it belongs,” he emphatically said. “At Cherry Hill High School West on Chapel Ave.”
Mark Trible; (856) 486-2424; firstname.lastname@example.org
CHERRY HILL WEST 26
CHERRY HILL EAST 20
Play of the game: Lions’ WR Quincy Jenkins caught a Hail Mary pass as time expired to send the game to overtime.
Player of the game: West QB Andrew Valentin, who threw the TD to Jenkins and also ran for a score.
Well said: “I am in disbelief. Absolute disbelief.” — Lions’ senior WR/DB Rene Rosario on the finish.
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