Barons deck the Cards in State semis

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By on December 5, 2018

Manheim Central’s Ben Wagner leaps for the ball during the PIAA Class 5A semifinal game at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, PA on November 30, 2018.

The drive home from Altoona’s Mansion Park last December was a long one for Manheim Central’s football team.

A tight, down-to-the-wire 31-28 loss to Gateway was all that separated the Barons from advancing to the PIAA State finals.

But as their team buses rolled east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on that dark, chilly night, the Barons no doubt started to think ahead.

“I think the experience of being (in the State semi-finals) last year made them hungry,” Manheim Central coach Dave Hahn said. “Our seniors have been incredible leaders all year long and they just wanted to get there.”

“There,” of course, is the State 5A finals at Hersheypark Stadium, and that’s exactly where the Barons are headed after knocking off District One champ Upper Dublin 34-12 last Friday night at Wissahickon High School in the PIAA semi-finals.

“It’s nuts, it’s a dream,” senior linebacker Landan Moyer said. “It’s a dream come true.”

“It’s a blessing,” junior quarterback Evan Simon added. “Not many high school kids get to go through this experience. It’s a great opportunity. We’ve got to rise to the occasion.”

Making their fourth-ever trip to the State finals, the Barons (14-0) will face WPIAL champ Penn Hills (15-0), which beat two-time reigning State gold-medalist Archbishop Wood 20-13 last Friday.

Manheim Central is aiming to bring home its second PIAA crown — and first since 2003, when the Barons defeated Pine Richland 39-38. MC also advanced to the State finals in 2004 and 2009. The Indians won the title in 1995, beating Lower Dauphin 35-14 in Quad-A in their lone appearance in a State championship game.

“It’s hard to put into words. It’s exciting,” Hahn said. “This is our goal every year, so we’re just excited to keep it going one more week.”

The Barons’ defense was going full tilt Friday night while yielding only 45 rushing yards, intercepting two passes from Upper Dublin QB Mike Slivka and recording four sacks.

“Our defense was relentless all night,” Hahn said. “We’re in a pursuit of perfection and coach War (defensive coordinator Tom Waranavage) does a fantastic job with these guys and that’s what he wants. I’ll guarantee you, if you go and talk to him, he’s ticked off about the 12 points (allowed) right now, but I’ll take it … 34-12, I’ll take it.”

Two blocked punts in the first half — courtesy of juniors Jake Martin and Tyler Hartl — also spoke of that relentless effort from the Barons’ D, which forced a three-and-out from the Cardinals on their first four possessions of the game.

“It all started up front,” Moyer said, “and we were just filling gaps and holes and shutting them down.”

The momentum started to turn in the Barons’ favor when Martin’s blocked punt gave Manheim Central the ball at the Indians’ 45 with 5:02 left in the first.

Simon (12-82 rushing) then broke off a 34-yard gain, putting the Barons’ on the doorstep.

“I think a lot of people think Evan’s just a pocket passer, but he’s as much of a dual threat as we need him to be,” Hahn said. “We don’t want him to necessarily run all the time, but he can.”

Two plays later, senior Tyler Flick plowed in for a four-yard TD run, and after Niko Gavala added the PAT, the Barons led 7-0 with 3:28 left in the first.

Flick, who now has 31 rushing TDs this season, finished with 85 yards on 17 carries.

“We had a great game plan coming into this week,” Simon said, “whether it was run or pass and I think we did a decent job of executing.”

Flick was also making an impact on the defensive side of the ball from his linebacker position, finishing with a team-high 14 tackle points. In fact, with the Barons focused on bringing heat at Slivka and forcing him to get rid of the ball sooner than he wanted, the Cardinals’ offense managed only 104 yards and six first downs in the first half.

“We were putting pressure on the quarterback, which he’s never seen before, and just being physical and trying to beat him up all night,” said Moyer who finished with 10 tackle points and a sack. “We wanted him to throw the ball and get it out quick and make bad decisions.”

After back-to-back incompletions by Slivka (17-of-29, 175 yards), Hartl blocked a punt to give the Barons’ offense great field position again, this time at Upper Dublin’s 7-yard line.

“They meant everything,” senior Will Rivers said of the big special teams plays. “If our offense has good field position, I think most of the time we can always convert that into some kind of points, whether that’s a field goal or touchdown.”

“Special teams is a game-changer in football,” Moyer said. “We work on it a ton and we got it done and executed it perfectly.”

Moments after the block, Simon cashed in with a five-yard TD run with 8:46 left in the half, pushing Manheim Central’s advantage to 14-0.

Needing a glimmer of hope, the Cardinals finally got one with a 10-play, 49-yard scoring drive following an unsuccessful onside kick by Manheim Central. With just 2:10 remaining in the half, UD 6-foot-2 receiver Jason Scott caught a deflected 15-yard TD pass from Slivka, and Upper Dublin cut the Barons’ lead to 14-6.

But the positive energy didn’t last long for Upper Dublin, as Baron junior Colby Wagner returned the ensuing kickoff to the Cards’ 45. Eventually, Simon (10-of-22, 182 yards, 2 TDs) rolled right and fired a strike near the right pylon to Ben Wagner, who secured the catch for a 12-yard TD with 1:13 left in the half, making the score 21-6.

It stayed that way going to the locker room after senior Isaac Perron pirated a Hail Mary from Slivka on the final play of the opening half.

“I think the last drive in the first half really set the tone for us,” Hahn said. “That was probably the best series we had where we went ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom right down the field. I think that was a back-breaker. I think that Will Rivers’ touchdown kinda sealed the deal.”

Not many would argue with that.

Still leading 21-6 after taking over on downs at their own 3-yard line with 9:10 remaining in the third quarter, the Barons dealt Upper Dublin a mighty blow. On second-and-long, Simon lofted a pass in the right flat to Rivers, who did the rest, breaking four tackles on the right sideline and racing 77 yards to paydirt, extending the Barons’ lead to 28-6.

“Evan threw it up, I saw someone was on me and I just tucked the ball, made sure I kept running my feet,” Rivers recalled, “and then all of a sudden, I saw green grass and I just used my speed to get down the field.”

“That was an incredible effort by Will,” Hahn said.

Overall, the Barons gained 360 yards of total offense against Upper Dublin. and Gavala’s season-long 38-yard field goal with just 46 seconds left in the third capped an eight-play, 58-yard drive and gave MC a commanding 31-6 advantage.

Then with just 2:46 elapsed in the final stanza, Gavala again split the uprights, this time for a 25-yard field goal, and the margin was 34-6.

From there, the Cardinals answered with their best drive of the night. Slivka went a perfect 5-of-5 on the possession, and his four-yard touchdown pass to running back Lucas Roselli narrowed MC’s lead to 34-12 with just 4:16 remaining.

But it wasn’t enough and the Barons ran out the clock to clinch their victory.

“We were hoping and praying that we would be able to come out and play our game and finish what we couldn’t finish last year (in the 31-28 loss to Gateway in the State semi-finals),” Rivers said.

“Not many words can describe it,” Simon said, “but we’re a program where the standard is set high and we’ve answered that with Section and District championships. We’ve got one more week left in us, we’re going to have our best week of practice and it starts tomorrow. We’re not done yet.”

Indeed, Manheim Central is looking to make its bus ride home from Hershey this Friday night much sweeter than the one from Altoona last year.

“We talked a little bit about (being the fourth Baron team to make the State finals), saying, ‘You can put yourself in Manheim Central lore getting to this game,’” Hahn remarked, “and I think they did. Now we’ve got to finish the job. It isn’t over.”

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