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Rockets outlast Valley Christian

Correspondent photo / Michael Taylor Lowellville quarterback Vinny Ballone runs for yardage Friday night in the Rockets’ 30-26 playoff win over Valley Christian at Struthers.

STRUTHERS — The 16th-seeded Lowellville Rockets utilized their explosive passing attack to subdue the 17th-seeded Valley Christian Eagles 30-26 in the opening round of the Ohio High School Athletic Association football playoffs Friday night at Struthers’ Laddie J. Fedor Field.

The victory improves the Rockets to 3-4 on the season as they advance in the postseason tournament.

Rockets sophomore quarterback Vinny Ballone connected on 22-of-48 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Rockets charge. He ran the ball for 104 yards and scored another touchdown.

“Everything was working,” Ballone said. “The receivers were running their routes hard, the lineman were blocking good, and the running backs were running as hard as they could.”

“He bailed us out a couple of times,” Rockets coach Andrew Mamula said. “There were a couple of times where they had everyone covered. He got us a first down and we had no right to get a first down. It should have been a sack and he just does everything for us.”

Correspondent photo / Michael Taylor Lowellville's Cole Bunofsky (12) hauls in a pass for a first down on fourth down.

After the Eagles (2-5) had opened the scoring on a 28-yard pass from Joey Battisa to Vershawn Gurley gave them a 6-0 lead, the Rockets responded with a 3-yard touchdown from Ballone to Anthony Sanchez. That made it 7-6 at the 11:55 mark of the second quarter.

Two plays midway through the quarter shifted the momentum in the Rockets favor. Eagles running back Jon’tae Pabellon would be tackled in the end zone for a safety that gave the Rockets a 9-6 lead. Then, less than a minute later the Rockets scored again on a 17-yard pass from Ballone to Alex Modelski. That gave the Rockets a two-possession advantage at halftime at 16-6.

“Every decision I make is to try to get us to a two-possession lead,” Mamula stated. “We onside kick a lot, we go on fourth down, we go two-point conversions, everything is to try to get that extra possession up so that our kids can play a little more comfortable. That did exactly what we needed to do.”

“That was really important,” Ballone said of the 10-point lead. “That was when the momentum swung to our side.”

Eagles coach Jomant Ware noticed that as well.

Correspondent photo / Michael Taylor Valley Christian's Jon'Tae Pabellon (10) runs for a big gain as Lowellville's Vinny Ballone (5) pursues.

“That was huge,” Ware said. “That was a really big momentum swing. If we had gotten the ball out of the end zone, we actually would have won the game if you think about it. Because it was two points then they scored again, so eight points.”

The Eagles didn’t go away quietly as they battled back in the second half, cutting the Rockets lead down to just 3-points at 16-13 with 5:16 remaining in the third quarter when Jon’Tae Panbellon powered his way into the end zone from 7-yards out.

The Eagles scored on a Jon’terll Mixon 34-yard interception return with 5:13 remaining in the game to make it 23-20 before Ballone hit Brady Bunofsky on a 31-yard strike to boost the lead to 30-20 in favor of the Rockets.

The Eagles would not go away as they made one last effort. Battisa hit Jhordan Pete on a 45-yard Hail Mary pass with just 1:36 remaining in the contest. But Rockets tight end Anthony Lucente would recover the onside kick and the Rockets would run out the clock.

“No, I never felt comfortable, I still don’t feel comfortable. They might put five seconds back on the clock,” Mamula said jokingly. “Those kids fought for everything. Our kids fought. This is what playoff football should be. That was a hell of a game.”

STRUTHERS, OHIO- October 9, 2020: Youngstown Valley Christian Eagles vs Lowellville Rockets at Laddie J. Fedor Field- In 1st qtr., Valley Christian's VeShun Gurley (13) makes td catch over Lowellville's Alex Modelski (9). MICHAEL G. TAYLOR | TRIBUNE CHRONICLE

Valley Christian never gave up for any of the four quarters.

“We played hard for four quarters,” Ware said. “We just can’t put ourselves in a hole and expect to come back and play two quarters and make up the previous two quarters. If you don’t play good against a quarterback who is athletic like him (Ballone), he is going to burn you.”

The Rockets face another Eagles team next Friday, this time the top-seeded John F. Eagles (4-2) at Mollenkopf Stadium next Friday at 7 p.m.

The Valley Christian Eagles resume their regular season with a game at league opponent Wellsville next Friday night.

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