By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline was eager to prove that it could move the football against a stiff Kettle Run defense in Friday's rematch with the Cougars in the Region II, Division 3 semifinals. The Hawks were able to do that -- for the most part.
The Hawks' offense finished just shy of 300 total yards on Friday after managing just 36 in their first meeting with Kettle Run on Sept. 28. Unfortunately, Skyline failed to cash in on multiple occasions and turned the ball over four times on the night. The Hawks fell to the Cougars, 31-14.
Three turnovers came in Kettle Run territory, and all four led directly to points for the Cougars.
"We didn't finish some drives ... we didn't make those plays, but our kids battled hard and they worked and tried their best," said Hawks coach Heath Gilbert. "Our offense did have the opportunity to do some things, we just didn't finish."
In addition to the four turnovers, Skyline also failed to convert a pair of fourth-down attempts on Kettle Run's side of the 50.
Things started about as well as it could have for Skyline, as quarterback Aaron Jeremiah found tight end Nick Helmick on a slant over the middle for 32 yards on the very first play from scrimmage.
The top-seeded Hawks reached the Kettle Run 27 three plays later, but on the fifth play of the drive, Jeremiah lost the handle on the football as he took an option-keeper up the middle behind teammate Dayvon Haight. Cougars senior Robert Gaskins covered the ball to end the early threat.
"They crashed real hard, and it's a play we've been running, our bread and butter," Gilbert said. "They really hit us hard in there and caused the fumble and got it. It was tough to take and we just piled on those turnovers."
Kettle Run (10-2) took advantage, using a run of 28 yards by quarterback Carlos Vegerano and a 31-yard scamper by running back Josh Tapscott to set up a 21-yard field goal by Evan Szklennik with 6:28 left in the first quarter.
Skyline (10-2) seemed poised to answer with a long drive on the next possession, marching all the way to the Cougars' 21-yard line behind a steady mix of running and passing. But Tapscott intercepted Jeremiah's fourth-and-7 pass attempt.
"We talked about it all week, turnovers in playoff football gets you beat," said Cougars coach Jeff Lloyd. "[The defense] has been the backbone of this team for three years."
Kettle Run then went 76 yards on nine plays, capped by a huge touchdown run by Vegerano to give the Cougars a 10-0 lead.
Facing a second-and-18 from the Skyline 45, Vegerano dropped back to pass before deciding to scramble. The senior juked a Hawks defender just beyond the line of scrimmage and went the rest of the way untouched for the 45-yard score with 5:03 left before the half.
Skyline finally put a complete drive together and answered on its next possession. Jeremiah hit Helmick for passes of 37 and 29 yards, the latter a touchdown pass along the right hash that cut the Cougars' lead to 10-7 with 3:20 left in the half.
Jeremiah finished the day 15 for 29 passing for 210 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Helmick caught 10 passes for 160 yards and two scores.
Jeremiah and Helmick hooked up again late in the fourth quarter on an 11-yard pass to make the score 31-14 with 2:30 to play in the fourth.
"We knew we had to get our playmakers the ball, and [Helmick] is one of them," Gilbert said. "We really wanted to lean on those guys, and some of it worked out and some of it didn't."
Kettle Run connected on what very well could have been the back-breaker when Vegerano found tight end Matt Tingle behind the Skyline secondary for a 78-yard touchdown pass to give the Cougars a 17-7 lead going into halftime.
Skyline's defense played well in the second half, holding Kettle Run to just 62 yards in the third and fourth quarter combined. Both of the Cougars' second-half touchdowns came directly from Skyline turnovers.
Vegerano returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and a backwards pass that was recovered by Kettle Run at the Skyline 23 set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Vegerano to put the Cougars up 31-7 with 9:08 to play.
Vegerano had 121 yards on 19 carries and threw for 92 yards on just two completions. He had four total touchdowns.
"We didn't really make too many changes in the second half, the defense just came out a little more fired up," Helmick said. "We gave them a couple short field situations, which they took advantage of."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org