Leading for most of the game, Mount Paran Christian saw its advantage over Darlington disappear early in the fourth quarter.
But the Eagles scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than 2 minutes to play and Darlington’s comeback bid was denied in a 16-13 loss for the Tigers on Friday in the second round of the Class A Private state playoffs.
Darlington (9-2) honored its 14 senior football players prior to what became the final game of their high school careers, and Darlington head coach Tommy Atha’s thoughts went to them after the heartbreaking loss.
“I’m just tremendously proud of these guys,” Atha said. “They’ve had a great season. We’ve got some special guys on this team, and they’re certainly going to be missed. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but that’s football. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go your way and that’s a tough lesson you have to learn. It’s been a tremendously fun year.”
The Eagles’ game-winning drive almost didn’t happen, but Mount Paran quarterback Niko Vangarelli was able to guide his team down the field and cap the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run to seal the win with 1:58 on the clock.
The drive started with an Eagles’ fumble which they recovered, and Vangarelli was nearly intercepted by Darlington senior linebacker Kobe Nadu on the next play.
Vangarelli kept the drive alive when he hit Jackson Manning as he was being flushed out of bounds down the sidelines on a 23-yard reception. After that, it was just a matter of Vangarelli powering his way down the field and into the end zone.
“I’ve seen it so many times, but that one was special to get in,” Mount Paran head coach and Darlington alumnus Mitch Jordan said. “We had some tough calls on the kickoff, but we’ve just got to play smarter down the stretch.”
The Princeton commit finished 6-of-12 for 101 yards passing and rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries as the Eagles completed their second straight upset against higher-seeded teams in the playoffs.
Vangarelli now has 1,533 passing yards on the season and has rolled up 1,870 yards on the ground.
“He’s a very good player,” Atha said. “He’s a tough kid, makes good decisions, and he made big plays for them.”
Darlington took 13-9 lead on the third play of the fourth quarter when senior running back Kolin Rogers took the ball for five straight plays, eventually scoring on a 2-yard run with 10:59 left to play in the game. The Tigers went for two, but Rogers’ throw was intercepted in the end zone. Rogers finished with 100 yards rushing on 18 carries and completed his senior season with 1,427 yards rushing.
The Tigers were held scoreless in the first half and saw the Eagles (7-4) push their lead to 9-0 in the third quarter on a 19-yard field goal by Parker Rostowsky. The Tigers came out strong in the second half, but the early deficit was too much to overcome.
Atha said despite the loss, his players have every reason to be proud of what they accomplished this season and how they didn’t give up after halftime.
“We just challenged them,” Atha said. “What you do in these last 24 minutes is what you’re going to remember. It’s going to stick with you, and you’ve got to take it with you from now on. Even though we came up short, those guys can walk away with their heads held up because they came out and battled. We made mistakes, and you can’t make critical mistakes in the state playoffs.”
Quarterback Griffin Brewster was 6-of-14 for 91 yards, including a touchdown pass to senior receiver Trystin Wright who caught the ball in stride and ran for a 55-yard score to cut the Eagles’ lead to 9-7 with 3:46 left in the third quarter. Wright had two catches for 72 yards.
Brewster finishes his senior season with 1,920 yards passing and was protected all year by UGA commits Tate Ratledge and Cade Brock.
Ratledge was able to get some pressure on Vangarelli and blocked an extra point attempt after the Eagles’ quarterback scored his first touchdown of the night on a 22-yard run.
Also highlighting the Tigers’ defense was Patrick Shelley who intercepted Vangarelli in the second quarter to halt a drive that saw the Eagles march down to the Tigers’ 5-yard line.
Mount Paran will play the winner of Saturday’s game between Holy Innocents’ and St. Francis in next week’s quarterfinals.