Whisler: Juniata Indians showcase their best in pandemic-filled season
While Juniata didn’t walk away as the winning team on the scoreboard at the end of the afternoon on Saturday against Oil City in the PIAA Class 4A Playoffs, the Indians put on one heck of a show.
Oil City, who came into the game as the No. 4 team in the state in 4A, was projected to win big and after some early mistakes, Juniata responded well against a dominant Oilers’ team that had won its eight games prior to Saturday by an average of 50.25 points.
Nobody had much faith in the Indians, but Juniata fought hard and nearly pulled off a massive upset. Juniata forced five turnovers and clawed its way back into the game and took the lead on a 3-yard TD run by Yaniel Ortiz early in the fourth quarter. After scoring a touchdown with 31 seconds left, the Indians had a chance to go for a 2-point conversion and the win, but came up just short.
It was a special moment and one that showed just how important sports are for students. The playing field is the perfect place to learn life lessons, to face adversity and learn to respond to better yourself in life’s challenges.
That’s exactly what Juniata did on Saturday against a brutally tough Oilers’ team. The Indians also learned that no matter how hard you try, sometimes things don’t go your way, and that’s OK.
“Football is an emotional game,” Indians’ coach Kurt Condo said after the game. “There is always going to be ups and downs, just like life. It hurts losing a game like this but they are going to lose a lot of things in life.
“We were coaching the kids all week and told them that (Oil City) was blowing out everyone and that they were putting up 50-70 points each week,” Condo continued. “They hadn’t had to deal with digging deep and having to play a fourth quarter or a whole game.”
While there were tears and the pain of coming so close lingered shortly after the game, the disappointment was short-lived. Yes, Juniata was one play away from the victory, but in a game they were told they couldn’t be competitive in, during a season where nothing was guaranteed, Oil City’s goal line stand that ended the Indians’ season was somewhat surreal.
“It was uplifting. It was something,” Juniata’s Emmanuel O’Donell said of the team’s comeback after the game. “It could’ve went either way and it didn’t go our way unfortunately. We are going to go to the locker room with our heads held high because we gave them a fight. We were predicted to lose 55-7 and we lost by one point. It was phenomenal.”
It was a pretty phenomenal season for the Indians as well.
Coming into a year where getting an opportunity to play on Friday was never guaranteed and who you would actually play against on Friday night seemed to never be official until the game actually kicked off, the Juniata Indians were fortunate enough to play each week. Condo spoke briefly about appreciation and how his team was lucky and especially grateful to just be able to compete.
“There are some teams sitting out there that never got to dress up,” Condo said. “My brother coaches a team down in Maryland and they are playing 7-on-7 touch football with their kids because that is all that they can do. There are constantly teams not playing each week but we played a game every time that we had the opportunity to play. We had to deal with the COVID contact tracing and missing kids. I was thinking to myself, the only time that I wasn’t thinking about all of the other things out in the world was being here. I think football helped the kids, helped the coaches and helped the community this fall.”
After joining the Mid-Penn in the newly reformed Liberty Division, there were some high expectations for an Indians team that advanced to the District 6 playoffs a season ago.
With the return of one of the Tri-Valley League’s top quarterbacks in Jacob Condo, along with a great group of skill position players in Ortiz, Caleb Seeger, O’Donell and Jace White, expectations were high for Kurt Condo’s team.
“Coach told us at the beginning of the year at our first 7-on-7 that we had something special and we would all be like, ‘Oh yeah he’s probably just saying that,'” Ortiz said. “Then we won the title and he told us that he wasn’t playing. It’s been a ride.”
Juniata was tested early, suffering a tough setback in its opening week against one of the best football powers in the state in Middletown, but quickly responded, reeling off four consecutive wins.
The Indians earned the No. 1 seed in District 6 Class 4A and faced off against Bellefonte. Juniata dug deep as it had all season, as Ben Wagner booted a 23-yard field goal to give the Indians their first District title as a member of District 6 with a 24-21 victory over the Red Raiders. The win was Juniata’s first district championship in 33 years, when the Indians were a member of District 3.
“As far as effort goes, I wouldn’t want to be on the field with any other group of guys,” Jacob Condo said of the comeback effort against Oil City. “I feel like I don’t care who we are up against, our effort will never be in question.”
In a season with so many question marks, the Indians showcased how much sports matter to so many athletes and how they provide opportunity, strengthen relationships, teach teamwork and provide an escape and so much more for student athletes.
“I think every single one of us is just grateful and we feel blessed that we were even able to have a season,” Jacob Condo said. “It feels great to be able to make the farthest run our team has ever made in the playoffs as well. I feel like we will never take anything for granted from here on out.”
Despite a shortened year, 2020 is one that the Indians will never forget.
“It means a lot. This was only my second year of playing football,” O’Donell said. “The personnel that we have, the teammates, the coaches, the trainers, it’s phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for a better staff.”
“Obviously a district title means a lot and this game would have meant a lot too,” Kurt Condo said. “With the way this year has gone, I am happy for the seniors and I am happy for the kids to have had the opportunity. I can’t stress that enough.”
And I’m sure that when players and coaches look back on this season in 20 years, the conversations of going 5-2, winning the District 6 title and nearly beating Goliath will provide lasting memories for all of those involved.