HERSHEY - The group hug lasted a good half-minute, if not longer.

Participating aside from coach Brian Fluck were skill-position members of West Catholic High's now-devastated football team.

Most players already had begun the long walk from the locker room to the north end of Hersheypark Stadium on Saturday afternoon, past a smattering of still-adoring fans, where a tour bus was prepared to make the return trip to Philly.

Quarterback Curtis Drake, halfbacks Rob Hollomon and Raymond Maples, fullback Juan Rozier, receivers Haleem "P-Nut" Hayward and Eric Young . . . They remained behind in the locker room, sharing their pain. All were crying. Some quite intensely.

In the midst of the hug, Fluck said simply, "I love you guys. Nothing will change that. I love you all."

Enjoy the Show . . . Share the Sorrow.

West lost to Wilmington, which is about halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie, 35-34, in two overtimes, in the PIAA Class AA state final.

After a season of slapping around almost all of their opponents, the Burrs had been rocked, stunned, shocked . . . and most of all deflated.

Out by the bus, Hayward said, "This takes a big part away from our season. From three-a-days in the summer, everything we did was designed to get us here and win the state.

"This is having a major effect on the seniors. This was our first and only chance to win a state championship [in the Catholic League's first year of participation]."

Hayward, at defensive back, contributed an interception, raising his career total to 12. He also served at slotback on the game's final play.

After Maples ran 2 yards for a touchdown in the second OT, drawing West within one, Fluck, aware that the Greyhounds had been coming closer and closer to blocking Tim Carroll's PATs, went for the win.

"Purely my decision," he said. "I just felt it was time . . . 'Let's put the ball in our best player's hands. Let's end it.' ''

Drake took the snap, came away from center to his right, then peeled back to his left. He broke for the goal line at the left hash mark. One defender got him at the ankles and sent him into a semiflip. Another met him mid-air and pushed him turfward.

There was momentary excitement among the Burrs and their fans. Drake did get into the end zone! But as TV replays showed, he did so on a bounce.

It was the third time Drake experienced such just-short frustration.

As the first half ended, West had the ball at the 3. While spinning away from center, Drake bumped into Hollomon and was dropped at the 2 as the clock hit 0:00. The Burrs left a timeout on the table. Fluck said later the situation had been "bungled."

As regulation wound down, Drake hit Young for 41 yards and Hollomon ripped off a 23-yard dash to the 7. The refs even helped, as an offside call put the ball at the 3.

Four straight runs couldn't get it done. On a fourth-down sneak, Drake was held to no gain from the 1.

How did all of this happen? How did the Burrs (14-2), who finished with the far-and-away city record for points in a season (775), not conclude their season with yet another frolic?

Aside from the missed golden opportunities to end the first and second halves, there were also three turnovers and they combined to negate the effect of 460 yards in total offense; Maples (19-177, three touchdowns), Drake (16-112, one) and Hollomon (14-102, one, a city-record 36th TD) all topped 100 yards in rushing.

"I didn't think we were overconfident," Fluck said. "Maybe there was some nervousness.

"All the things we usually do right . . . didn't happen today."

No one could have second-guessed the effort. Limping noticeably, junior center Jake Zuzek returned to action after spraining his left ankle early in the fourth quarter.

"I feel bad for the seniors," he said. "I have a next year. They don't. I wanted to win it for them.

"This won't hit me until later, until I actually realize that we lost."

Hayward could have helped him with that. He already knew. And there was nearby evidence.

Outside the bus, Drake was sitting on the edge of the luggage compartment, sharing yet another cry and hug with a leaning-over Rozier. Hollomon was walking around the parking lot, expressing his agony/frustration as assistants tried to comfort him.

Hayward soaked in the scene.

"We fell short," he said, slightly raising his voice to be heard over the bus' idling engine. "One game short."

It would be a long ride back to Philly. *