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Cougars stun Central in triple OT, 34-31District Football
By: BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org, Staff Writer
The Philadelphia Eagles have their fourth-and-26 play.
You know, the one where Freddie Mitchell hauled in the improbable first-down pass in a 2004 playoff game against the Packers.
For Manheim Central, last Friday’s game might be best remembered for a fourth-and-1 which it was unable to convert.
With the Barons leading 17-14 and time winding down in the fourth quarter, Barons’ junior running back Justin Greene was stopped for a two-yard loss by Palmyra’s Jon Hicks, a University of Connecticut recruit.
The 13th-seeded Cougars took advantage when Matt Smoluk booted a game-tying 20-yard field goal with :34.8 remaining and then they stunned the fourth-seeded Barons 34-31 in triple overtime as the senior kicker nailed a game-ending 25-yard field goal in a District Three Triple-A first-round playoff game at Manheim’s Elden Rettew Field. It was Palmyra’s first-ever appearance in the District Three playoffs.
"We should have never gone to overtime," Manheim Central coach Mike Williams said. "That (fourth-and-one), to me, was crucial. Even as poorly as we played, if we make it, that’s a first down and we have the game won … The play of the game tonight has to be the fourth-and-one and we couldn’t get it. That’s our power play that we’ve been running for 31 years and this is the only year in 31 that we couldn’t run it."
The win sends Palmyra (9-2) to the District Three Triple-A quarterfinals this Friday against 12th-seeded Red Land (6-5), a 42-41 triple OT winner over Hershey.
Manheim Central, meanwhile, wrapped up a season in which they overcame tremendous adversity to finish 8-3 overall.
"This was going to be a short playoff regardless if we won because we make so many mistakes," Williams said. "But we told the kids, ‘We can’t let this loss be a damper on the season.’ I give our kids a lot of credit for hanging in there and for what they accomplished this year."
Both teams’ defenses acccomplished a great deal on Friday night. The Barons limited Palmyra senior running back Preston Bare, the Mid-Penn’s leading rusher, to just 71 yards on 21 carries and held the Cougars’ offense to 129 total yards.
On the other side, Manheim Central’s offensive leader QB Caleb Walton had a game-high 31 carries and reached the century mark, but they were 115 hard-fought yards, in addition to being sacked four times. He also completed 14-of-24 passes for 148 yards, but threw two interceptions.
It was Bare’s fumble recovery by MC senior Derek Shaub at the Cougars’ 20-yard line early in the first quarter which led to the Barons taking the early lead. Two plays later, Walton faked the handoff, kept the ball around the right side and scored on a 15-yard run with 4:21 elapsed. Bryant Myer added the PAT to make it 7-0.
Then when senior defensive back Josh Good intercepted Palmyra junior QB Mason Laudermilch and returned the ball 13 yards to the Palmyra nine, Central seemed poised to grab command of the game. But Cougars’ senior Wyatt Yasinski pounced on a loose ball and Palmyra avoided that threat.
That was one of five turnovers in the game by the Barons, who also missed a chance to add to their lead when a 49-yard field goal attempt fell short late in the first quarter. Although MC had 37 first-half offensive plays, to Palmyra’s 11, and the Cougars were held to just 20 yards in the opening two quarters, the visitors were able to pull even when senior defensive back George Robertston stepped in front of a Walton aerial and returned it 75 yards to the house with 7:12 left in the second.
Following the Barons’ next possession, Nick Slobozien blocked MC’s punt and Bare picked up the loose ball and returned it 24 yards to paydirt to give the Cougars their first lead, 14-7, with 5:07 left in the half.
"That’s the story of our life, the story of our season," Williams said of his team’s missed opportunities early in the game. "We do these crazy things. We spend an inordinate amount of time on punt protection, and we let them block a punt … We did a great job on defense. Give Palmyra credit, but we gave them so many opportunities. We had so many opportunities that we let get away."
The Barons did, however, cut into the Cougars’ lead when Myer’s 27-yard field goal with :45.0 left in the half capped an 11-play, 59-yard scoring drive to make it 14-10 going to the locker room.
In the third quarter, with Palmyra’s Hicks, Yasinski, Slobozien and Brandon Petrouski causing havoc in Central’s backfield, the Barons went without a first down, in addition to committing a turnover on a muffed punt.
Finally, though, they got on track and put together a 13-play, 79-yard scoring drive in the fourth. Walton was the workhorse on that series, completing 3-of-5 aerials for 30 yards and carrying the ball eight times for 49 yards, including a one-yard TD dive with 7:29 left in the game to put MC back in front, 17-14.
Minutes later, it remained that way with Central facing fourth-and-one at the Cougars’ 33-yard line. Greene got the handoff, but was met in the backfield by Hicks, and the Barons turned it over on downs.
"(Hicks) is a good player, but if you let him come in untouched, what the heck?," a frustrated Williams said. "Their defense came to play too. We had four minutes of good offensive line play, and then all of a sudden, we stopped."
On the Cougars’ ensuing possession, Bare went untouched to the sticks on a fourth down fake punt play which kept Palmyra’s hopes alive with 3:30 remaining.
"Everybody in America knows it’s a fake punt and we have one player that can make a tackle and we don’t make it," Williams said. "But I don’t want to be too hard on our players — we had a great season."
Three plays later, Jordan Harro’s fingertip reception went for 20 yards on a screen play and then Laudermilch found the senior wide receiver on the left sideline for a 26-yard reception to the Barons’ three. MC’s Shaub chased down Laudermilch on a naked bootleg and junior Nate Henry knocked down a pass on third down, but Smoluk split the uprights with a 20-yard field goal to tie it.
"I felt more pressure with tying it than winning it," Smoluk admitted. "In a way, I was hoping (the offense) would score so it didn’t come down to me, but it did."
In the first OT period, Walton barreled 10 yards up the middle to paydirt to put Central up 24-17. The lead was brief, however, as Bare answered with a 10-yard TD run of his own on the Cougars’ opening play to send it to a second OT period.
This time, Palmyra got the ball first and Harro hauled in an 11-yard TD pass in the right corner of the endzone. Harro was Laudermilch’s favorite target with six receptions for 68 yards.
Senior Andrew Kauffman (4-32 receiving) was one of Walton’s favorite targets for the Barons and the two hooked up on a four-yard TD strike, forcing another tie at 31-31 and sending the game to a third overtime.
There, the Cougars got a break when Slobozien recovered a fumble by Walton on the Barons’ first play. After two rushes by Bare netted three yards, the Cougars sent Smoluk onto the field on third down with the game resting on his right foot, and he delivered the game-winning 25-yard field goal.
"I get a little nervous sometimes, but I just go with what I know how to do," Smoluk said. "It’s our first time in the playoffs and it feels great to win it like this." More BARONS, page B-6