Number 17 in 2017: Simon’s TD pass to Lester caps Barons’ game-winning drive in District Three 5A finals

By on November 29, 2017

Call it sweet redemption for Manheim Central’s Vinny Lester.

The Barons’ senior wide receiver had earlier dropped a pass in a third-and-long situation.

But with MC driving in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and trailing Governor Mifflin 29-23, Lester got another chance in the District Three 5A championship game at Hersheypark Stadium.

And boy, did he deliver.

Executing a hitch-and-go to perfection, Lester hauled in his first-ever score, a 33-yard touchdown reception from Evan Simon with just 3:51 left, and then Niko Gavala kicked the go-ahead PAT.

That turned out to be the difference, as the Barons rallied for a 30-29 win over the Mustangs, improving to a perfect 13-0 and clinching their record 17th District Three title in program history.

“I feel like time was a lot slower because I was really focusing on the ball,” Lester recalled. “I can’t explain how happy I am. I can’t explain how much that means to me that I actually got the game-winning touchdown.”

Hersheypark was, in fact, a happy place for Manheim Central period, as the Barons captured their first District Three crown since 2009 and advanced to this Friday’s PIAA semi-finals against District Seven champ Gateway (13-1), a 49-30 winner over Hollidaysburg. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Altoona Area High School.

“I’ve just got a big smile on my face,” MC coach Dave Hahn said. “I’m just excited for the kids. I’m kinda speechless.”

Mifflin (12-1), who upset top-ranked Harrisburg 26-14 in the semi-finals, had reason for excitement after rallying from deficits of 14-0 and 20-7, grabbing a 29-23 advantage with just 4:52 left on a Kameron Wolfe-to-Michael Franks 22-yard TD strike and then a Wolfe-to-Bryce Stubler two-point conversion.

Wolfe completed 11 of 20 passes, good for 215 yards and two touchdowns.

The Barons, though, still believed.

“You’ve just got to be confident in there and remain poised and just know the coaches are going to call the right plays and they did,” said Baron sophomore QB Evan Simon, who was 18-of-29 for 239 yards, with two TDs and one INT. “And we just executed.”

Yes, they certainly did.

With the Barons taking over on their own 29, Simon completed 5-of-6 aerials while engineering the game-winning 71-yard drive. Two of those passes went to Jake Novak for 20 yards and the other three to Lester, including the 33-yard TD strike after leaving Mifflin safety Stubler in his wake.

“I ran a hitch, I stopped and looked at Evan, and I stuck my foot in the ground and just ran as fast as I could,” Lester recalled.

Simon noted that the play was open due to the aggressiveness of Mifflin’s defensive backs.

“Throughout the week, we watched film and noticed that their corners were really ball-hawks,” the Barons’ QB said. “We took advantage by giving them a pump fake, the corner bit on Vinny and Vinny scored his first-ever touchdown. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

“He ran it as good as any receiver can run it and took it to the house,” Hahn said. “It was awesome. We needed that pick me up, and that last drive, Evan was lightning in a bottle, man. He was great.”

That was the exclamation to a big night for Lester, who caught eight passes for 95 yards — and made his third-down incompletion a distant memory.

“When I dropped the ball, Evan said, ‘You’ve got to keep your head in because I know you’re going to make more plays,’” Lester recalled. “And then, guess what? I made a play.”

With 3:51 still left on the clock, however, the Mustangs had time to answer.

“We wanted to slow down and try to score with less time on the clock, but we just wanted to score,” Hahn said. “So it was, ‘Look, get the score, put the pressure on them, and let our defense do it.’ Hey listen, defense wins championships and the defense stepped up and did it. They did a great job.”

Mifflin moved the ball to its own 37-yard line, as Wolfe threw completions of 11 yards to Franks and Darius Copeland. But on fourth-and-4, Wolfe’s aerial fell to Hersheypark Stadium turf, and that was the ball game.

“It’s humbling,” Simon said of the District title, “but I’m beyond blessed to be part of this program.”

The Barons were blessed to have Gio Lester after Tyler Flick suffered an injury in their 21-20 win over Cocalico in the District semi-finals. Lester rushed the ball 20 times for 90 yards and two TDs, the first of those coming with 5:55 left in the first quarter on a 39-yard sprint to the end zone. Gavala’s PAT gave Manheim Central a 7-0 lead.

After senior tackle Garret Fittery recovered a fumble by Mustang running back Isaac Ruoss, the Barons were back in business. Four plays later, Simon found Novak for a 12-yard TD connection, and Manheim Central quickly built a 14-0 lead.

From there, Copeland gave the Mustangs’ a spark by returning the kickoff 25 yards, setting up Mifflin’s first TD drive of the night. Wolfe’s 37-yard hook-up with Franks on a fly route got GM deep into Baron territory and Ruoss scored on a one-yard run with :28 left in the first. Ben Myers’ PAT then cut the Mustangs’ deficit to 14-7.

It remained that way when Mifflin made a gutsy call at its own 17 on fourth-and-short. When Wolfe’s flanker screen pass fell incomplete, the Barons had great field position, and they capitalized on Gio Lester’s two-yard TD run to extend their advantage to 20-7 with 6:29 left in the half.

“I’m just awfully proud of Gio,” Hahn said. “He ran hard. We wanted him to bounce a little bit more, but that comes with more reps. He did a great job.”

The Barons’ D did a great job against Ruoss. The senior back entered Friday’s game with 1,702 rushing yards and 28 TDs, but Manheim Central held him to 81 yards on 23 carries. Linebacker Tyler Simon had a team-high 17 tackle points.

“They never let (Ruoss) break one away,” Hahn remarked. “He got four and five yards at times. We had a couple stops on him for less than a yard or two, but it was a bend, don’t break effort and they did a great job on him.”

With the Barons leading 20-7 at the break, Mifflin recovered an onside kick to start the second half, and then the two teams traded turnovers. Wolfe’s INT eventually led to Copeland’s 13-yard TD run, helping Mifflin cut their deficit to 20-14 with 9:17 remaining in the third.

The momentum was now in the Mustangs’ corner, and nothing changed when Tyler Simon was stopped short on a fake punt at the Barons’ 42.

“The only thing I keep going over in my head is that darn punt-run call,” Hahn said. “We had it early and I got stubborn and said we’re going to do it, and they adjusted to it. It was stupid, but the kids stepped up and found a way to make it happen in the end.”

Mifflin capitalized on the fourth-down stop when Wolfe hooked up with Tyshaun Weaver on a slant pattern for a 12-yard TD pass, giving them their first lead, 21-20, with 3:03 left in the third quarter.

Then early in the final stanza, the Barons got a break when a shotgun snap sailed over the head of Wolfe, resulting in a 21-yard loss and forcing the Mustangs to punt.

“That hurt them,” Hahn said. “That helped us. When you get in these games now, it’s all about momentum.”

Taking over at Mifflin’s 41, the Barons regained the lead when Gavala split the uprights on a 23-yard field goal, making it 23-21 with 6:10 to go.

What followed — less than two minutes later — was the Mustangs’ longest play of the night, as Wolfe hit Franks down the left sideline on a 49-yard TD strike with 4:52 left. The successful two-point conversion put them back up, 29-23.

But the Barons still had a hitch-and-go up their sleeve, which proved to be the decisive play in bringing home the District championship.

“It’s a special thing for Manheim,” Hahn said. “We like getting here. That’s our goal every year to get here and give ourselves a chance to win and I think we did that. We accomplished it. We won one and we’re ecstatic. But I told the kids, ‘Enjoy it, but then when 12 o’clock comes, let’s go. Let’s focus on the next opponent.’”

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