ANDOVER TOWNSHIP —
It’s always said, practice makes perfect. Pymatuning Valley kicker might be the perfect example of that, using as many partners as could in order to become the best kicker possible.
That all came into play as he drove a 37-yard field goal through the uprights with two seconds remaining to give the Lakers a thrilling 10-8 victory over Southington on Friday night at Laker Stadium.
“I just tried to remember the same things we work on in practice,” Nowakowski said. “I’ve practiced a lot with my mom (Melody Nowakowksi) coaching me and I’ve been able to work with my brother, Grant, snapping and Tim Cross holding for several years.
“We’ve put in a lot of time practicing kicks, and we are comfortable with each other and have confidence we can get it done. My coaches have helped a lot, too, by reminding me to keep my head down and follow through on the ball.
“This was my first gamewinner and it feels really good.”
The Wildcats (3-6, 0-3 in Northeastern Athletic Conference) had taken an 8-7 lead just seconds earlier.
Starting from their own 20-yard line with 3:22 left to play, the Wildcats drove the length of the field in 11 plays to reach the end zone with 29 ticks left on the clock. Jordan Dickey powered his way over left tackle from the 7-yard line, and coach Ryan Slone had his team go for two. Dickey smashed his way in to stun the Lakers and put Southington ahead, 8-7.
PV (3-6, 2-2), has quick strike people, though, and when the ensuing kick went out of bounds, setting the Wildcats back 5 yards for another kickoff, the Lakers did not despair.
Cross returned the second kick to the Laker 45 with 25.3 seconds left. Three straight passes from Ratliff to Cross, the third of which resulted in a perfectly executed hook and lateral play back to Ratliff, set up the Lakers at the Wildcat 20 with nine long seconds on the clock.
On all three of those plays, the Laker receiver did a perfect tiptoe job to make sure of the completions and then get out of bounds to stop the clock.
Nowakowski lined up for his kick, having had an earlier attempt blocked, but his focus was on the fundamentals he works so hard with each day and his line drive had everybody gasping and craning their necks as it cleared the crossbar by just inches to seal the win.
“Austin has worked hard as a kicker,” PV coach Neal Croston said. “I think he’s capable of booting them from about 40 yards in. He didn’t hit this one with his best kick, but he got it hard enough to get it over the bar.”
It was second heartbreaker in as many weeks for the Wildcats.
“Both teams are very young,” Slone said. “We’ve got a lot of first-year starters on our team. I know PV does as well, but I think the kids played their hearts out tonight for both teams. I told the kids after last week’s game with Grand Valley that I am proud of the effort they have put in and I told them that again tonight.
“Both weeks we played to the very end with teams that drilled us last year and these close games show how far we’ve come. It’s a shame a team has to lose games like this.”
Before the grand finale half minute, the Lakers had capitalized in the first period by taking the first drive of the game 52 yards in nine plays for a relatively easy score. With J.T. Willis (19 carries, 63 yards) doing most of the work, Ratliff found Cross on a corner route from 19 yards out and Nowakowski booted the extra point for a 7-0 lead that held up until the last minute.
Southington showed its heart following that score by taking the ball from its own 40 to the PV 18, but a fumble that the Lakers’ Evan Pilson swallowed up ended that threat. Much of the game the rest of the way was played at a smashing pace in the middle of the field until the final two drives.
“I’m glad the weather held up tonight,” Croston said. “Much of our season has been dictated by turnovers and the two fumbles we lost tonight and the one pick could have hurt, but the kids really battled hard all the way.
“We knew Southington could run the ball, but we felt there was enough time to get close enough for Austin to kick at the end, and he got it through.”
Ratliff’s 113 yards on the ground, along with 54 more passing to Cross, paced the Lakers.
Perhaps the biggest play of the night, other than the final field goal kick, came with 7:32 left to play as the Wildcats drove toward what appeared to be their first score of the night.
On fourth and goal from the PV 13, an Austin Casper pass was picked off by Ratliff at the two and he set sail down the left sideline before being run out of bounds at the Wildcat 33. That drive ended as Nowakowski’s first field goal try was blocked.
Kelly is a freelance writer from Jefferson.