For Thunder, close was not quite close enough

Vindicator staff report

YOUNGSTOWN — Mahoning Valley Thunder coach Chris MacKeown didn’t sleep any better Friday night because his team came closer to winning this week than last.

Mahoning Valley was on the cusp of winning Friday night’s af2 game against the Manchester Wolves when things came unglued in the last 55 seconds.

That’s when the Thunder was outscored, 18-6, giving the visiting American Conference Eastern Division Wolves a 59-53 victory at the Covelli Centre.

Although Friday’s loss was nowhere near as pitiful as the 62-28 loss in Albany last Saturday, MacKeown and the Thunder are hurting because Mahoning Valley seemed to have victory within its grasp.

The beginning of the end started on the extra-point kick attempt following Quorey Payne’s touchdown catch of a 15-yard pass from Brad Roach with 1:54 remaining.

That’s when long snapper Jerrick Jeffreys’ center went beyond holder Jermaine Moye and into the hands of kicker Nathan Palkovic, who quickly snatched the ball out of the air before throwing to tight end Kenny Shane, who ran and landed just inches short of the goal line.

Although Mahoning Valley led, 47-41, Manchester came right back and scored on just two plays to go ahead by one, 48-47.

All seemed well after Payne’s 53-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 45.5 seconds left to put Mahoning Valley up, 53-48.

Then the Thunder’s onside kick was retrieved by Steve Savoy at Mahoning Valley’s 10-yard line and quarterback Mike Potts scored from 2 yards out for a 54-53 edge with 37.4 seconds remaining. Manchester’s 2-point conversion pass from Potts to Savoy put Mahoning Valley behind, 56-53.

The nail in the coffin was a fumbled snap on the Thunder’s ensuing possession.

Manchester’s Bryan Robinson fell on it at Mahoning Valley’s 12-yard line and the Wolves added a field goal with 10.5 seconds left.

MacKeown defended his decision not to kick away when Mahoning Valley led, 53-48.

His logic to try the onside kick was predicated on the belief that Manchester was going to score regardless, so the short kick hastened getting the ball back in Mahoning Valley’s hands for a final series.

“The arena game is about having the ball last,” MacKeown said of Mahoning Valley’s final opportunity to retake the lead.

But the plan went awry when the fumbled snap was recovered by Robinson.

Although MacKeown said that Mahoning Valley’s defense played well enough for the Thunder to win, his onside kick choice was trying to show confidence in his offense.

“I understand what coach was trying to do,” Payne said. “Personally, I don’t agree with it because the defense played good all night. I know what coach wanted to do — he wanted to put the pressure pretty much on the offense and wanted them [Wolves] to score and leave us enough time to march downfield. I understand what he was trying to do, and I support him, but, personally, I would have kicked and make them work for it.”

Payne had a prolific night on kickoff returns with eight for 197 yards and one TD.

In the third quarter, however, the Wolves clamped down.

“I know they were coming down a lot harder in the third quarter,” Payne said of Manchester’s coverage. “They were coming down a lot harder and trying to get off blocks, so they were making it a little tougher in the second half than in the first.”

Moye described the wild snap.

“It wasn’t accurate,” said Moye, the holder. “I didn’t touch it at all. It went straight to the kicker [Palkovic] who caught it and tried to make a play. I thought we were in [for a TD by Shane], but it didn’t work out that way.”

Moye was asked about the onside kick that resulted in a quick Wolves TD.

“That’s not my decision to make,” he said. “Coach made the decision and he’s been around the game for a long time, so we have to trust what he does. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out for us.”

Defensive end Tim Cheatwood, who put pressure on Potts and managed to slightly alter the direction of a few passes, described the game’s outcome.

“It looked like they made one or two more plays than we did,” he said. “It was a strong fight the whole game and neither team gave an inch. They happened to make one or two more plays here and there, especially the one at the end [recovery of fumbled snap].”

QB Brad Roach felt more comfortable in his second af2 start, but acknowledged some shortcomings.

“There were a couple miscues on my part that I can’t do,” he said of the fumbled snap and four interceptions. “I’ve got to make better decisions.”

He also saw good signs.

“We’ve got the potential to be a good team. We’ll just build on this momentum going into next week’s game.”

Defensive back Ray Williams, coming off an injury, got in for one play, but a Potts-to-Savoy pass covering 13 yards spoiled it and tied the game, 34-all.

Payne finished with four TDs and had 84 yards in receptions, followed by Moye with four for 70 and C.J. Brewer with six for 67. Brewer and Moye both had a TD catch.

Brandon Taylor, who started at defensive back for a third straight game, had a Thunder single-game record three interceptions.