By David Coulson. March 26, 2017. BOONE, NC — The High Country Grizzlies looked like they were going to give fans at the Holmes Convocation Center an inaugural game to truly remember Saturday night with one final play from the eight-yard line to turn a heartbreaking defeat into dramatic victory.
COVER IMAGE: Lehigh Valley WR goes high to make TD catch. Photographic image by David Scearce for Blowing Rock News.
SLIDESHOWS AT BOTTOM
But that last-ditch effort at a win in the new franchise’s first home contest evaporated when quarterback Stephen Panasuk’s last pass soared out of the reach of former Appalachian State star Dexter Jackson in the back of the end zone, allowing the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks to survive for a 48-42 win in Week Two of the new National Arena League season.
The Grizzlies, coming off an inspiring 62-29 road victory last week in the franchise’s first-ever game, looked like they might improve to 2-0 when they took a seemingly-safe 42-34 lead with 6:13 remaining on fullback Undra Hendrix’s three-yard touchdown smash.
The Grizzlies had one last chance with 1.9 seconds left, on the 8-yard line.
But the Steelhawks (2-0) rallied for two TDs the rest of the way and held on for the victory. Ex-University of Maine QB Warren Smith tossed a scoring strike with 19.3 seconds left to vault Lehigh Valley from a 42-41 deficit and a successful two-point conversion try made it a six-point game.
Starting at the 20-yard line after the kickoff hit an obstruction on the roof of the arena, Panasuk combined with another ex-Mountaineer, game-breaker Malachi Jones, on a pass-and-run for 16 yards that moved the ball to the Steelhawks’ 29.
Panasuk’s scramble out of pressure and a personal foul against Lehigh Valley — when a defender’s late hit catapulted the Grizzlies’ QB against and over the wall — gave High Country one last chance with 1.9 seconds left on the clock.
After each team called their final time outs to set up strategy, Panasuk evaded pressure long enough for Jackson to break open in the middle of the end zone, against the wall.
But the ex-LaSalle University passer concluded an inconsistent night by throwing the ball over Jackson’s head as a defender drilled the wide receiver against the padding.
“The last play was a great play call,” said Panasuk, who had five TD passes to four different receivers, but also was picked off three times. “We just have to execute it. I don’t make excuses.”
Malachi Jones sparkled all night with big receptions…
Two of the TDs went to Jones, who sparkled all night with big receptions as the Grizzlies’ motion slot receiver. Jackson, Daron Clark and Mackenzie Williams also had TD catches for High Country.
Before a boisterous crowd estimated at 2,500 spectators, the Grizzlies fell behind 13-2 in the first quarter before rallying to tie the game at 21 before halftime.
Lehigh Valley scored on its opening drive on Smith’s first TD aerial and added another score when a backwards pass was botched on a screen play and was converted into a defensive touchdown by the Steelhawks.
Defensive captain Brandon Sutton, a 6-3, 320-pound lineman from Catawba College, started High Country’s scoring by sacking Smith in the end zone for a safety and finished the night with two other sacks and a blocked extra point.
Sutton said he is confident about the Grizzlies’ potential, even with the tough loss.
“We are (going to be) the best team in this league,” Sutton predicted. “I learned tonight that every possession counts. Sometimes a loss is a reality check.”
While Sutton was the most dominant defender on the field, the Grizzlies were stunned by several coverage busts from its rookie-based secondary that allowed Smith and company to score some quick points in the second half.
“I liked our fight,” said High Country coach Josh Resignalo. “They jumped on us and we fought back. We were just a couple of plays short.”
The Grizzlies will be back at home next Saturday for a 7 p.m. game against Dayton at the Holmes Center, with their enthusiastic fans looking for more dramatics.
SLIDESHOW By David Scearce for Blowing Rock News
SLIDESHOW By David Rogers for Blowing Rock News