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Brannigan saves day for Varsity

Stars in all 3 phases of game to lead Pioneers to comeback win


By Kevin McGavin

RICHTON PARK -- Mark Brannigan was the epitome of a one-man wrecking crew Sunday afternoon.

The Orland Park eighth-grader was decisive in all three phases of the game in the Pioneers' River Valley Youth Football League varsity contest against Frankfort at Rich South High School.

The Pioneers’ wide receiver hauled in a 56-yard strike from quarterback Justin Egan with three-plus minutes remaining and gave Orland Park a one-point lead with his second extra-point kick moments later.

But Brannigan was not finished.

From his safety position on the ensuing Warriors’ drive, Brannigan sealed the Pioneers’ 19-18 victory with an interception of a halfback-option pass.

“We have a play just like that,” Brannigan said of the Warriors’ last-ditch drive. “I saw the receiver running down the field, and figured I better get on him. I just jumped up and got it.”

The Pioneers (6-2-0) appeared to be in serious trouble when Frankfort two-way standout Payton Orth returned an interception to augment an earlier offensive score to extend the Warriors’ lead to 18-11 with 4:19 remaining.

Brannigan responded with a kickoff return to the Pioneers’ 42-yard line to begin the comeback and game-winning drive.

But things looked pretty grim after the Pioneers could gain but two yards on their first three plays from scrimmage.

“We were almost at the point of losing hope right there,” said Egan. “We had fourth and about eight. Nothing was really there (in the initial seconds of the fourth down play). I was just looking for something and saw Brannigan in the middle. I just fired it in there.”

It was not a clean catch initially, though.

“It was a good throw by Justin, and I kind of bobbled it for about five yards,” Brannigan said.

But Brannigan not only gained possession of the Egan double-digit-distance pass but also outraced the entire Frankfort secondary to the inside of the left pylon to cut the Frankfort lead to 18-17.

“I was super tired and was like, ‘You just need to make (the extra-point),’” Brannigan said of the successful conversion.

“He’s automatic (on extra-points), but it all starts with the offensive line,” Orland Park coach Jim Roche said of the Pioneers’ special teams’ unit. “If (center John-Michael Scumaci) doesn’t play in the NFL as a safety or corner, he’s probably going to be a long snapper. It’s just a phenomenal team win.”

The game began inauspiciously for the Pioneers when Frankfort (3-5-0) essentially consumed the entire first quarter with a scoring drive to take a 6-0 lead.

But in what proved to be most certainly a foreshadowing of what was to follow, the Warriors were stymied on the first of three unsuccessful PATs.

“(The blocked extra-points) really saved our butts in that game,” Orland Park special teams stalwart Zach Bateman said.

Orland Park scored on consecutive possessions to take an 11-8 lead.

Brannigan opened the Pioneers’ scoring with an almost-unheard-of field goal from slightly more than 20 yards.

“How many times have you seen a field goal in an elementary school game?” a Pioneers’ assistant coach rhetorically asked on the sidelines.

Orland Park running back Alex Knight, who had several punishing runs  and broke many tackles in the process, had a 17-yard sweep to set up back-to-back Egan connections through the air.

“I was just running hard today,” Knight said. “I had one-on-one matchups and executed nicely.”

Brannigan had a 15-yard third down reception to place the ball at the Warriors’ 20-yard line.

Orland Park took its first lead when Egan found Scumaci in the left side of the end zone on the next play.

“On my part, that wasn’t my best throw,” Egan said.

Scumaci soared in traffic to haul in the touchdown strike.

“(Scumaci) made me look pretty good,” Egan said. “He’s got some hops.”

Added Scumaci: “The safety was covering me tightly. I jumped up and stuck my hands out.”

It appeared Orland Park would score on three-consecutive possessions bridging the second and third quarters, but Knight had his short touchdown run at the start of the second half nullified on a penalty.

“I didn’t want to dwell over it,” Knight said. “I just wanted to run the next play and score again.”

But Frankfort picked off Egan for a touchback three plays later.

“We lost a lot of momentum there,” Roche said.

Frankfort seized its opportunity with back-to-back Orth scores on offensive and defensive plays to take a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter.

But the Warriors’ twin scores only framed the backdrop for the subsequent Brannigan heroics.

“The offensive line was gassed, but we were able to keep blocking,” Roche said of the game-winning Brannigan score.

Playing a part in the Pioneers’ win were: Kevin Zimmer, Brian Funk, Michael Bobber, Danny Durkin, Aidan LeGrand, Tyler Milani, Luke Stefanos, Nathan Rodriguez, Ahmad Alrazzaq, Connor Dixon, Jacob Coleman, Luke Masino, Michael Walsh, Gage Fauber, Luke Kedzierski, Brett Fassler, Joshua Graska, Anthony Stotts, Matt Stubenfoll, Brett Laird, Nicholas Devos, Conner Anderson, Adam Zolnik, Tony Shamma, Eddie Palomadeo, Jalil McLaughlin, Anthony Dombrowski, John Alfarah, Danny Witkowski, George Winistorfer, Alex Kopley and Caleb Patton. Mia Castillo is the lone girl on the squad.

Ten Orland Park players and many cheerleaders missed the game due to the local middle schools’ annual field trip to Washington, D. C. These eighth-grade girls were on hand to keep the team's and crowd's spirits up: Efosa Atoe, Anna Crnich, Kayla Dombrowski, Maureen Fandl, Marisa Garza, Lexie Hansler, Maura Harty, McKenzie Hedinger, Kayle Hoak, Ella Jeffries, Kylie Kehlert, Nicole Kubacka, Morgan McGuire, Hannah Scanlon, Kasey Slusarczyk, Ava Stroobosscher, Hannah Stroobosscher, Brianna Timmons, Victoria Vargas, Natalie Villarreal and Meagan Walsh.

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