When a team has just 33 players at its disposal, just one injury to a key starter can wreak havoc on its offensive effort.
Sto-Rox High School's football team found that out when top receiver Mallory Claybourne was forced out of the game in the first half of this past Saturday's 14-0 loss to Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic in the WPIAL Class A championship game at Heinz Field.
Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic advanced to the PIAA playoffs with its first-ever WPIAL Class A championship and a 13-0 record. Sto-Rox finished the year at 12-1. The shutout loss was the first the Vikings had endured in eight seasons. The last shutout loss took place on Sept. 9, 2005, when Sto-Rox was playing a Class AA schedule and lost to South Park, 40-0.
Claybourne, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior wide receiver who is receiving NCAA Division I interest, entered the game with 39 catches for 985 yards this season, an average of 25.3 yards per catch. He also was the team's second-leading scorer with 16 touchdowns. He was limited to just two catches for 3 yards before his early exit.
Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said Claybourne was injured early in the game.
"He dove for the ball in the first quarter," Bradley said. "He played the rest of the first half, was evaluated at halftime and was unable to go in the second half."
Without Claybourne, the Vikings had to change gears.
"[Clybourne's injury] hurt us a lot," Bradley said. "With a team of 33 guys, we had to move Brendan Blair to his spot and some other boys in other areas. Some of the communication was hard to fix with our [offensive] package and personnel. Sometimes, we had the wrong people in the wrong spots. We had to send some of our outside receivers inside."
The miscommunication Bradley addressed likely was a factor in the 15 penalties the Vikings were assessed for 99 yards.
Bradley said the Vikings' offensive momentum was affected by a holding call, the first infraction called against Sto-Rox.
"That was a [bad] call early in the game," the coach said. "That set us back and really flipped field position. Unfortunately, we didn't play with enough discipline that we had for most of the season."
Another issue the Vikings had to contend with was a stout North Catholic defense that held Sto-Rox to just 19 rushing yards on 21 attempts. Lenny Williams, who committed to Temple last week, was held to just 16 rushing yards. Williams, though, kept the Vikings In the game, completing 16 of 26 pass attempts for 203 yards.
"We got what we expected [from the North Catholic defense]," Bradley said. "We weren't taking them lightly, but we thought we'd be able to run the ball a little bit better on them. You can't go out and throw the ball 50 times a game. You have to be able to run it, and they really took that away from us. Outside of our quarterback, we really struggled running the ball."
Williams said he couldn't point to anything the Trojans were doing defensively, although he was sacked six times for 45 lost yards.
"I couldn't think of anything in particular, but I had a lot of mistakes," he said. "And we also had too many penalties. Every time we had something going, something set us back."
Sparked by P.J. Fulmore's 2-yard touchdown run with 3:20 left in the first quarter, North Catholic was clinging to a 7-0 lead when the Trojans were faced with a 3rd-and-14 at their own 26-yard line.
That's when Fulmore, the game's leading rusher with 83 yards on 26 rushes, called a quarterback draw and rambled 42 yards to the 32-yard line. Five plays later, Jerome Turner darted 17 yards up the middle to give the Trojans a 14-0 lead with 8:14 left in the game and basically put the contest out of reach.
Bradley will have plenty of holes to fill when the Vikings begin practice next August. Of the 22 starting positions, six are manned by seniors on offense. Seven defensive spots will be vacated by graduating players. Some of the players, however, were two-way starters.
Williams was proud that his team reached the championship three consecutive seasons.
"We accomplished a lot, but we didn't get what we wanted," he said. "To play in the championship game three years in a row is a great opportunity, but too many things went wrong."