By Tom Robinson, NEPASportsNation.com
PECKVILLE – Even on the field at times, it felt like the County had finished off the City in Wednesday’s 87th annual Scranton Lions Club Dream Game.
The record-setting, Cayden Merrifield-to-Ryan Dolphin passing combination made sure that was never true until a kneel down on the game’s final snap.
The three-way play – offense, defense and special teams – of Zane Janiszewski, Mark Callanan and Mike DiGregorio made sure the County had just enough to finally subdue the City and emerge with a 31-29 victory before a paid crowd of 7,467 at John Henzes/Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“We really thought it was over,” said Old Forge’s DiGregorio, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Delaware Valley’s Aiden Oliver with 6:50 remaining. “We just needed to get one more stop.
“We really didn’t expect them to score that much because we had a lot of faith in our defense, but all the credit to them. They fought to the end. It was a great game.”
The game, presented this year by Northeast Rehab and Riverfront Sports, returned from a one-year hiatus, created by the coronavirus pandemic, with one of the most entertaining games in the history of a series that predates World War II.
Merrifield, the West Scranton quarterback who had missed his senior season with an injury, was largely responsible for that. He completed 15 of 27 passes for 362 yards and 3 touchdowns with almost all of that damage coming after he had scrambled away from the pass rush, extending plays and lengthening the time County defensive backs had to chase receivers as part of the game’s mandatory, man-to-man secondary coverage.
“That’s my style of play,” said Merrifield, who was playing his final football game before concentrating on basketball at Wilkes University. “Our offensive coordinator told me, ‘make plays’. Drop back and, if I don’t find anybody, use my feet to get guys open.
“Our wide receivers did a helluva job today.”
Particularly Dolphin, who caught 10 passes for 202 yards, a touchdown and the 57-yard gain that gave the City a shot at the potential game-winning, 33-yard field goal with 13.2 seconds left.
When the kick sailed just outside the right upright, the County finally had its win in the all-star game for recent graduates of Lackawanna Football Conference teams.
“We were up by two touchdowns and I thought it was over then,” Delaware Valley’s Callanan said. “They fought really hard. They did not give up and, honestly, it was a really tough game.”
Janiszewski, Callanan and DiGregorio each threw in defensive and special teams plays on a night when the offenses combined for more than 800 yards.
The City was leading, 7-6, until the final play of the half when Callanan delivered a potentially crushing blow with a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown as time expired and a 12-7 halftime lead.
Then, the offenses picked up the pace.
The City gained 300 of its 456 yards in the second half, all but 5 of it on Merrifield passes. The County, behind Janiszewski’s power running and an improved passing game, followed up a 103-yard first half with 242 yards in the second half.
“I didn’t expect it to get this wild,” said Western Wayne’s Janiszewski, who carried 23 times for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns, returned a kickoff 72 yards, broke up 2 passes and had a sack among the 5 tackles in which he was involved. “I thought we were going to end the game pretty quickly, but they’re a great football team. They had a lot of great athletes.
“Cayden Merrifield is so good at making plays and you can’t really stop him.”
As it turned out, they couldn’t even contain him.
Merrifield’s 236 fourth-quarter passing yards were a big reason the City came back to lead after trailing 18-7 late in the third quarter and 25-15 going into the fourth quarter.
After scoring on the last play of the first half, Callanan scored again as time ran out in the third quarter, catching a 28-yard touchdown pass from Riverside’s Johnny Gilchrist.
Merrifield, who ran for a touchdown and threw for a two-point conversion in the third quarter, brought the City back in the fourth. He scrambled all the way back to near the goal line before unleashing an 85-yard touchdown pass to Scranton Prep’s Vito Gianello, then hit Dolphin with a go-ahead, 24-yard touchdown pass.
“After that Johnny Gilchrist-to-Callanan touchdown, I thought we were in a good spot, but then they made a good play,” said Janiszewski, NEPAFootball.com’s 2020 District 2 Offensive Player of the Year, who is headed to Bloomsburg University to play National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II football. “Vito made a good catch and ran down the sideline and It was a close game again.”
DiGregorio caught the touchdown pass, covered 57 yards on 3 kick returns and made 2 tackles. But, it was when he combined with Delaware Valley’s Preston Machado to break up a fourth-down pass with 2:52 left that he thought maybe the City was finally done.
Instead, Scranton’s Devin Cholette led a defensive stand that gave the City the ball at its 19 with 1:38 left.
Dolphin caught a third-down pass deep down the middle and tried to break away, but DiGregorio’s touchdown-saving tackle at the 15 at the end of the 57-yard gain helped the County ultimately escape.
Callanan finished with 4 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown, the interception return for a touchdown and 41 yards on 2 kickoff returns.
The City scored first on Merrifield’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Scranton Prep’s Ryan McAndrew with 8:22 left in the half.
Janiszewski returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards, then scored on a 5-yard run to close within 7-6 just 1:29 later. His 9-yard run was the third straight County touchdown and created the biggest lead, 18-7, with 4:00 left in the third quarter.
Merrifield ran for a 3-yard touchdown and hit Scranton Prep’s Max Mulligan with the two-point pass to reduce the deficit to a field goal, 18-15.
The Gilchrist-to-Callanan touchdown made it 25-15 going to the fourth quarter.
Merrifield’s two straight touchdown passes created a lead that lasted just 26 seconds.
“This was my last chance to come out here,” Merrifield said. “I wanted to make the most of it.”
Dolphin caught the go-ahead, 24-yard touchdown pass in the end zone on third-and-nine.
“I feel like there was a chemistry we made through practice,” Dolphin said. “ … We were able to read each other and we were able to come through, but unfortunately not at the end.”
DiGregorio’s touchdown, running up the middle of the field from the inside spot in a trips formation, and his tackle after chasing down Dolphin prevented the comeback from being completed.
The County used the win to cut the City lead in the series to 42-40-4.