HARRISBURG -- Hayden Rucci took one last glance up at the scoreboard, shared a moment with his host family and -- poof -- just like that, his prep football career was over.
It's been a whirlwind ride for Warwick's senior tight end.
When the Warriors took the field last fall, Rucci was the top-ranked tight end in the state, and he had a scholarship to Wisconsin wedged safely into his back pocket. Then a tragic accident outside the school claimed two Warwick students, and everyone's school year in Lititz was turned upside down in a split second.
Rucci persevered, helping Warwick share the L-L League Section One championship and win a District Three playoff game for the first time in program history. Multiple all-star awards followed, including an All-State nod and a USA Today honor.
Monday afternoon, on a glorious, sun-splashed Memorial Day before an overflow crowd at Landis Field in the 62nd Big 33 Game, Rucci put a shiny bow on his heralded prep career.
The future Badger got the start at tight end -- wearing his customary No. 33 jersey -- for Pennsylvania. He didn't exactly stuff the stat sheet, with just a pair of receptions for four yards. But the 6-5, 255-pounder delivered a key block on PA's first touchdown, as Rucci and the Keystone State squad blanked Maryland's all-stars 21-0.
After surveying the aftermath -- and with sweat dripping out of every pour after a hard day's work in his final high school game -- all kinds of emotions came spilling out.
"I have two words: Warrior Nation," Rucci said, his eyes beginning to well up. "The camaraderie and the community at Warwick is unrivaled. The support we got from everyone across Lancaster County and from across the state of Pennsylvania, I can't thank everybody enough."
Rucci and his classmates turned tragedy into motivation, and for the Wisconsin recruit, it carried all the way through the Big 33, his final prep event.
Pennsylvania's defense stole the show on Monday, holding Maryland to just 145 yards of total offense and zero scores of any kind. Maryland had maybe two big plays, but never threatened. Last year, Maryland converted three field goals in a 9-6 victory over PA. Monday, Maryland mustered next to nothing.
And Rucci, ever the gamer, loved every second of it.
"Being able to go out there against a whole other state, while representing Pennsylvania, and especially on Memorial Day," he said, "it was amazing. And this is so much more than just a football game. But it was definitely good to get a win."
Harrisburg QB Kane Everson (William & Mary) had a pair of TD strikes for PA, one to Imhotep Charter's Yusef Terry (Baylor) and one to Aliquippa's Will Gipson (Pitt). On the toss to Terry, Rucci picked off a linebacker coming around the end, allowing Everson to step up and deliver a strike to Yusef to give PA a 7-0 lead.
"Just making a play for the team," Rucci said. "I did as much as I could to help out. I never take a play off."
Terry, PA's MVP, added a TD run, as the Keystone State piled up 332 yards, and got some payback for last year's loss.
"It's the Big 33," said Rucci, whose dad, Todd, played in the 1988 Big 33 repping Upper Darby on the way to his days at Penn State and the NFL.
"There's not any game bigger in the state of Pennsylvania, and I can't even begin to say how much of an honor this was," Warwick's standout continued. "It was so much fun to put on the full pads all week. And it's only May. So this was awesome."
Rucci has put on 25 pounds since November; he's been a weight-room fiend, following Wisconsin's workout routine. He gave up playing lacrosse this spring so he could start concentrating on all things Badgers.
"I'm focused on working out and their playbook," he said. "Honestly, I feel more powerful."
He looks it, too.
Rucci graduates from Warwick on June 11, and he leaves for Wisconsin on June 14. You get the sense he'll have plenty of motivation when he lands in Madison.
"We'll always play for them," Rucci said of his fallen classmates. "And we'll always keep them in our hearts."