HERSHEY - The end result likely would have been something close to the same, but a disastrous start did not help.

The opening kickoff is in the air . . . and now the ball's on the ground and Archbishop Wood High does not have it.

The Catholic League's (and District 12's) first appearance in a PIAA state championship football game (Class AAA) did not go well, folks. The Vikings last night fell to Thomas Jefferson, of suburban Pittsburgh, 34-7, in frigid temps and biting winds at Hersheypark Stadium.

Things are expected to go better for Greater Philly this afternoon at 1 o'clock, when West Catholic meets Wilmington, also from the west, in the Class AA final. It's doubtful that'll make the Vikings feel any better.

They had a shot. And put the bullet through their collective feet.

After the kickoff was mishandled and Jefferson recovered on the 27, the go-ahead-for-good touchdown came in quick order. Tyler Wehner passed for 22 yards and then dashed to payturf from the 5.

Only 28 seconds had elapsed. All around Wood's side of the stadium, spirits collapsed.

The scene would be repeated roughly 2 1/2 hours later, but with more intensity.

After coach Steve Devlin spoke to his players behind closed doors for maybe 10 minutes, he emerged to speak with reporters at the top of a concrete staircase. Visible behind him in the locker room were four key players, seated in front of locker stalls. They were crying. Hard.

Passing by one by one to offer hugs were assistants.

Earlier, after accepting the runner-up plaque with his glum captains in a brief, on-field presentation, Devlin had told them: "Keep your heads high. Go over there and take it for a walk."

He was pointing to Wood's fans, hanging over the first-row railing.

"They supported you all year," he said.

So had the coach, and he wasn't going to stop now.

"We had a great year. I'm not taking anything away from our team," Devlin said. "One game's not going to define our season . . . I told them I love them. They might have lost on the scoreboard, but they're winners to me.

"For what these kids have accomplished, I love 'em to death. They bonded more than any other team I've ever been associated with . . . A lot of people would have been happy to play tonight."

Devlin knew beforehand that Jefferson, now a state champ for the second consecutive year and the third time in five, would be a formidable opponent.

He quickly dismissed the notion, however, that his players had not watched film of the bigger, shade-more-physical and sufficiently athletic Jaguars because any hint of fear was present.

"They never watch game films," he said. "Well, once in a while we do. We just don't do that."

Though Jefferson unveiled a no-huddle offense, he was correct in saying it had no effect. The Jaguars were in no hurry, and snapped the ball only after seeing what defensive adjustments Wood had made.

Wood's lone touchdown, the game's third overall score, came on a 26-yard, second-quarter pass from Sean McCartney to Anthony Narisi.

While other receivers occupied defenders on the edges, Narisi eased down the middle out of his slotback spot and was wide open when he made the catch.

Narisi did his postgame interview right on the field after the game. His eyes were also moist, but that might have been from the weather.

"No regrets at all," he said. "This was the greatest season I could have asked for. It [stinks] not winning it. We were Catholic League champs and got this far in our first year [of PIAA membership]."

For Devlin's money, the game's biggest what-if occurred two plays after Narisi's TD.

Wehner could not handle a slightly high snap and there the ball was, on the ground, begging to be covered by a Viking at Jefferson's 15. Didn't happen. The Jaguars not only retained possession, they rolled rather quickly downfield to make it 21-7.

A three-and-out for Wood was followed by another drive featuring great execution and relative swiftness. It was capped on a left-corner fade to 6-5 tight end Brock DeCicco. At 5-8, there was nothing defender Scott Adkins could do.

"That's why [DeCicco's] going to Pitt," Devlin said. "Scotty was great all year. He's as tough as they come."

McCartney finished 9-for-22 for 100 yards, finalizing his career numbers at 136-for-258 for 2,154 yards and 19 TDs. His career also produced 183 carries for 715 yards and 12 more scores. Sean Cunningham, limited to 32 yards on 10 totes, finished his Viking days with 383 carries, 2,321 yards, 32 TDs, while James McFadden's one PAT gave him 142 career points, which included 16 field goals.

Deep down, had Devlin suspected Wood would need to play the perfect game?

"We knew we had to play a good game," he said.

Added Narisi: "Too many little things went wrong. We couldn't get it done." *