Please support our Reporters

Open Dates
2023 HS Football Schedules
Coaching Jobs

Sublimated Uniforms

HS Football Scoreboard

Annville-Cleona Gets Its Groove Back With Old-Fashioned Muscle As Dutchmen Dictate Terms, Ground High-Flying Hamburg To Begin Divisional Play

Written by: on Saturday, September 16th, 2023. Follow Andy Herr on Twitter.


Over the totality of an entire high school football season, every week is precious in its own way.  Hard to argue that I suppose given that you only have a finite number of games in which you can play, short of taking matters into your own hands and playing beyond that allowed allotment and into the postseason of course.

And when we think of some of those weeks in particular, there are obviously a few that jump right to the top of the line. Week 1 because, well, why not, right? Everyone is undefeated and everyone is going to make it to Cumberland Valley for the state finals come December of course. Then, over the course of the next several weeks as everyone’s respective campaigns round into form for better or worse, Week 10 is usually not far behind in terms of its anticipation level given that stakes are at their absolute highest with divisional crowns and playoff bids of the like up for grabs in the regular season’s 11th hour.

But don’t sleep on the middle portion of the slate either. That especially rings true if you fancy yourself a fan of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s product.

In these parts, Week 4 is typically when the “going gets good” as they say in the vernacular. For it is this week in the L-L’s corner of the universe when section play begins and those frantic six-week jaunts to the finish line in its five respective divisions get underway in earnest. Not only that, but with three weeks’ worth of hay in the barn so to speak from a nonconference perspective for most teams in the conference by and large, those of us in the storytelling arena can’t help but also recognize that this week –perhaps above all others—is your proverbial “fork in the road” week where your season may really take off, or really take a dive in the exact opposite route. And wouldn’t you know it, but inside this week’s slate in Section Five specifically might’ve been one contest above all others around the local slate that defines this week to a T.

For Annville-Cleona, last season’s silver medalist in the 2A ranks of District 3 after falling to juggernaut Trinity in the title bout last November, it’s been an interesting three weeks to say the least. After a thorough shellacking of Hanover simply by looking at final tally that ended 52-19 in the Dutchmen’s favor in Week 1 at the friendly confines, the next two weeks would have to be defined as nothing if not tough sledding.

In their second outing, A-C fell victim to a school record-breaking performance from ELCO running back Jake Williams –his first of two consecutive performances of the like as it turned out– as the Dutchmen saw their neighboring rivals prevail in a commanding 49-7 decision before then venturing all the way out to Littlestown last week –about an hour and a half drive away as the crow flies—as a rare Thursday night affair got even weirder for A-C as an hour-long lightning delay preceded an eventual 33-21 Thunderbolts’ triumph in a night where perhaps it was apropos that the opposition had lived up to their namesake.

Suffice to say, for a program that quite frankly has molded itself into one of the quietest yet consistent producers of winning football inside the L-L League under the direction of head coach Matt Gingrich who has steered the ship marvelously since the departure of legendary boss Terry Lehman nearly a decade ago now, time was of the essence heading here into their next outing while trying to avoid a pesky three-game losing skid.

But that initial ask wouldn’t be so easy.

You like offense you say? Get yourself on over to I-78, Route 61, or some other road of your choosing, and type Hamburg High School into the GPS. You likely won’t leave disappointed. Yep, if you’re a fan of high-scoring attacks with passing yards more accurately tabulated by the bushel rather than the yard, the Hawks, at least through the first three weeks of 2023, are your team to check out.

Just try this on for size. From a yards-per-game perspective, there were only two teams inside the conference that had a better output than Hamburg thus far with the Hawks posting a sultry 400+ clip, including already eclipsing over 1,000 yards via the air in totality. Then, when you factor in the fact that the L-L League has become a 37-team behemoth, that statistic likely takes on an even greater illumination it’d be safe to say. And while the Hawks haven’t quite cracked the 50-point barrier up until this point in any one game this season, they’ve certainly been beating on the door given their 49 and 48-point showings against the likes of Halifax and Fairfield respectively. Not too bad for an encore in ’23 when you also remember that not only did Hamburg find itself right in the thick of the section title race right down until the final week last fall, but the Hawks graduated the likes of Ivy League quarterback Xander Menapace who is now at Columbia University, along with do-everything lineman Charles Sheppard who would’ve fit in at any section within the L-L League last fall and fared just fine given his unique skill set just to name a very select few from last year’s Hawks’ squad. So, if the first few weeks are to try and serve as any indication moving forward, the dynamic of Tyler Shuey at the controls along with fellas such as Mason Semmel and Ty Werley flanked to his outside on the perimeter, it looks to be quite the lethal combination for the rest of Section Five to tangle with from here on out.

However, as mentioned off top, no matter how you found yourself entering this night, whether you be trying to pick yourself up off the canvas, or just trying to keep yourself in first gear with the good vibes going, Friday night up on “Hawk Hill” in Berks County might very well go a long way in determining your future the rest of the way home this season. And if we’re going to apply that rationale, you can best believe that Annville-Cleona’s performance in this particular outing has the potential to be the biggest of springboards for them throughout the back half of the regular season provided they can replicate the same type of performance they put forth against Hamburg.

On a night when the Hamburg administration rolled out the proverbial red carpet and then some in honoring America’s bravest who walk amongst us in celebrating military and first responders that came complete with all the trimmings of a Blackhawk helicopter serving as the pregame flyover, the ground attack employed by Coach Gingrich and his brain trust on the Annville-Cleona sideline would’ve made the likes of General Patton and General Eisenhower green with envy. That said, A-C would have to wait their turn to impose their collective will once the game got underway.

With Hamburg’s high-flying attack getting the honors of toting the rock first, it looked as if the Hawks’ potent offensive attack was yet again in tip-top shape. Easy to say that when freshman running back Blaise Ernst breaks off an 11-yard scamper on the first play from scrimmage which precedes a successful 4th & 3 conversions not long afterward as Tyler Shuey calls his own number to move the sticks. From there, with the Hawks appearing to get lathered up and into a rhythm offensively, it looked as if a score was imminent when Shuey was able to hook up senior wideout Cohen Correll for a 16-yard pitch and catch which moved the attack down to the A-C 22-yard line. But Hamburg’s early mojo would ultimately come up snake eyes in the end as the Dutchmen’s defense proceeded to hold the Hawks on downs from there on out as beautiful play was made by A-C junior defensive back, Dominic Casciotti, knocking away a daring Hamburg throw into the endzone on a 4th & 14 play to punctuate the early stand for the Dutchmen D.

If we’re being honest here, almost everyone in attendance –or at least those who arrived equipped with the knowledge of what Annville-Cleona’s gameplan figured to be—knew full well what was coming. A steady dose of ground and pound. Sure enough, here came the lesson straight ahead at the Hamburg starting defensive troops.

Granted, while A-C was able to do some things on their initial foray with the football, not the least of which included a successful 4th & 3 and subsequent 3rd & 6 conversions picked up via the wheels of quarterback Cameron Connelly and running back Bryce Keller respectively, it would still prove to be a fruitful drive in some respects from the Dutchmen’s perspective regardless despite ultimately turning it over on downs seeing as how it would be a drive in which Hamburg’s TNT-like offense was sidelined for the better part of seven minutes of gameplay.

Sure enough, thanks in large part to A-C’s greediness in maintaining a large portion of the first quarter clock, the score remained deadlocked at 0-0 as both teams were able to enjoy just one full possession each between them before the first quarter horn blared out.

And while Hamburg would find themselves with ownership of the football at the tail-end of the opening frame and into the initial portions of the second quarter, the Hawks’ second offensive series would meet its demise in the form of an Annville-Cleona sack, giving the ball back to the A-C offensive unit at their own 20-yard line with only 50 seconds having expired off the second quarter clock. Only this time around, Annville-Cleona set their sights on crossing the goal line and never looking back.

Sure enough, much in the same vein as the drive that had preceded it, Annville-Cleona was able to keep the chains moving and the clock simultaneously melting by way of a litany of successful conversions when called upon. Case in point, a 4th & 2 conversion when A-C senior signal caller Cameron Connelly was able to plunge ahead for just enough to keep the drive alive and well. Not long afterward, the chain gang kept walking down the field once senior Cael Harter was able to get in on the act with a dynamite run from his running back spot to also move the ball over the midfield stripe. Later, this time facing a third down in the form of a three-yard variety, a successful Connelly keeper plus a facemask call tacked on for good measure ushered the Dutchmen down the Hamburg 31-yard line. Of course, if you’re a team that leans almost exclusively on the running game, chances are that an occasional forward pass here and there would likely go in your favor. Well, in that regard, a magnificent lob down the sideline from Connelly to Harter –in triple coverage no less—seemed fitting considering that it allowed the visitors from Lebanon County to draw first blood as the 31-yard touchdown connection between the pair of A-C upperclassmen made it a 7-0 Dutchmen lead with 5:23 left before intermission following Mina Elzek’s successful PAT.

Okay, while spotting a club with the pension for sticking it on the ground as much as Annville-Cleona does may not be the best guidance, it was hardly time to panic on the Hamburg sideline. Never more did that become apparent than when Tyler Shuey was able to find Cohen Correll once again on the first play of this Hawks’ series as the 12-yard pickup seemed to get the hosts back in a groove with the ball now sitting at Hamburg’s own 38-yard line. However, that early flame would get extinguished by the A-C defensive unit.

And with a roll of the dice when faced with a 4th & 5 attempt at their own 43-yard line just a few plays later, Hamburg’s gamble was not to be as a long pass cruelly just went off a receiver’s outstretched fingertips which suddenly meant that Annville-Cleona might be able to land a significant haymaker here provided they could take advantage.

Take advantage they would.

After helping to get this particular series off with a bang that came in the form of a 19-yard QB keeper from Connelly that quickly moved the Dutchmen threat down inside the red zone, Cael Harter did his part to move A-C ever closer as the 5’8 bruiser moved the pile down to the Hawks’ 5-yard line after a 5-yard gainer. From there, perhaps in the most fitting of ways possible given A-C’s propensity for picking up critical third and fourth down conversions it seemed at nearly every juncture during the first half of play in particular, a 5-yard Harter touchdown run on 3rd & Goal upped the guests’ cushion to a 14-0 difference with just 1:18 left before intermission at that point.

Just enough time for Hamburg to land a much-needed volley back over the fence, however.

While most teams might shutter the operation at that point in time given how it felt to even the layman’s eye that the Dutchmen had the contest dictated on their terms, Hamburg would certainly try to steal a late half score provided they could find it.

Find they would.

That said, the task at hand for the Hawks grew considerably easier right from the jump once Ty Werley was able to navigate his way for a 46-yard pickup on the ensuing Annville-Cleona kickoff return following the touchdown. And by going back to their bread and butter of slinging the pill all around the field, Hamburg was able to get themselves inside the A-C red zone for the first time all night long coming on the heels of a pair of Shuey to Correll and Werley connections respectively with the ball then resting at A-C 18-yard line. So, with not a moment left to spare –well, technically 4.8 seconds—a what felt like game-saving, perhaps even game-altering Hamburg touchdown was tallied when Shuey was able to throw one up to Werley as the 18-yard TD reception not only cut the Dutchmen’s lead in half at 14-7, but it also provided the homestanding Hawks with a much-needed burst of adrenaline heading into the locker room courtesy of their late score with time winding down.

Needless to say, whether you subscribe to the book of cliches or not, Annville-Cleona’s opening drive to begin the third quarter figured to go a sizable way in determining the eventual outcome. Yet here again, leaning on their offensive line to help get the job done and pour the metaphorical cement to lay the foundation from there on out, the Dutchmen proceeded to draw up what might have been the textbook definition of an A-C march coming out of the recess.

Just like in the first half, even despite finding themselves staring down the barrel of third and (fairly) long conversions at times, the Dutchmen continued to stick with what they do best. And wouldn’t you know it, but after a 4th & 1 sneak courtesy of Cameron Connelly to keep the A-C offense on the field, a rare Dutchmen pass from Connelly to Jonathon Shay not only powered their threat down to the Hamburg 16-yard line,  but it also brought with the idea of A-C potentially taking command as the converted 3rd & 3 play from Connelly to Shay guided Annville-Cleona down inside prime real estate following the 32-yard reception against the Hamburg D. Then, stop me if you heard this before, but after an 11-yard sprint by Bryce Keller on a 3rd & 5 play which moved A-C down to the 1-yard line, yet another successful third down conversion, this of the 3-yard variety, was good for six up on the scoreboard as the short QB keeper from Cameron Connelly netted A-C another touchdown as the guests saw their lead swell to a 21-7 count with nearly half the third quarter being taken away from Hamburg given the 6:06 left to go in the frame.

Speaking of taking away, that’s precisely what the Dutchmen’s defense did their next time out on the field too.

Sure, while Hamburg’s offense had largely been stalled for most of the night –not exactly due to their own shortcomings mind you given Annville-Cleona’s sheer domination in the time of possession category—it wasn’t as if the Hawks’ lacked the propensity for the big play. For proof of that, look no further than a 32-yard bomb from Tyler Shuey to Cohen Correll as the long hookup moved Hamburg out of the shadow of their own goalposts and onto the Dutchmen’s side of the field at the 48-yard line. However, speaking of the big play capabilities, Cael Harter came up with one of his own from the defensive back position later in the Hamburg series as the 5’8 senior snared an errant Hawks’ pass on a 3rd & 13 attempt to not only thwart a Hamburg threat, but his interception also helped to pave the way for what was surely going to be a long, time-churning offensive onslaught from A-C offensively upcoming.

Yet while the worst kept secret on this night was what Annville-Cleona intended to do in terms of an offensive scheme, the occasional pass proved essential when the Dutchmen brought it out of the playbook. Case in point, a massive 3rd& 8 conversion that ended in Jonathon Shay breaking what felt like countless would-be Hamburg tackles as the 19-yard connection through the air propelled the houseguests down to the opposition’s 25-yard line. Sure enough, while then going back to the option of trench warfare, A-C was able to bleed the final few minutes and change off the third quarter clock once and for all while also possessing the 21-7 lead with just a dozen minutes left to go.

Well, A-C needed all of four seconds once inside the final quarter to make it a 21-point difference on the whole as it turned out.

Yes, while staring down another third down attempt, this one specifically being 3rd & Goal at the Hamburg 6, a 6-yard touchdown gallop across the chalk from Bryce Keller seemed to put this one out of reach following Mina Elzek’s fourth successful PAT of the picture-perfect evening as A-C found itself out in front by a 28-7 count with 11:56 still to go.

If ever the Hamburg offense was going to replicate some of those same vibes they were able to demonstrate on their final drive of the opening half, surely now would be a time befitting the occasion. And to their credit, the Hawks were indeed able to exercise some of their recent demons on this night as the hosts methodically moved down the field against A-C’s defensive unit. In fact, courtesy of a nice dose of run and pass plays sprinkled in, Hamburg eventually found themselves residing at the A-C 10-yard line on the heels of a nice quarterback draw play called for Shuey. From there, a pop pass from Shuey to a streaking Ty Werley hard-charging down the line picked up eight additional yards with the Hawks now sitting at A-C’s 2-yard line.

However, even despite their backs being up against the wall with the thought of Hamburg potentially tallying a game-continuing score as it were with time starting to tick down, Annville-Cleona’s D was to challenge and then some.

In terms of specifics, the Hawks would be able to only net one additional yard over the course of the next few plays as a back-breaking goal line stand was punctuated by all 11 found roaming on the defensive side of the ball from A-C as Hamburg was formally turned away following a failed 4th & Goal try which awarded the ball back to the Annville-Cleona offense with just nine minutes left to go from there.

And while this drive wouldn’t net in points, it could nonetheless be deemed a success of sorts given that it chewed up an additional five minutes of gameplay.

But by that point, even though Hamburg would try their darndest to try and muster a scoring threat to try and extend the game as best they possibly could, the damage exerted over the course of the 33 minutes plus in which the Dutchmen possessed the football in this game proved to more than enough once the final gun was fired as Annville-Cleona picked up which hyperbole or not, may just end up saving their season considering how it was largely an emphatic 28-7 final count awarded in their favor against Hamburg when they absolutely had to have it.

In fact, it was such an impressive performance that it seemed to even catch those who know the team best a little off guard.

“How about that?” A-C head coach Matt Gingrich asked out loud after sending his players back to the locker room to get dressed and travel back home as if to be in a bit of bewilderment himself considering what his troops had just done out on the field. “I was really concerned after the last two weeks about what was going to happen the rest of the year just because we were so flat and there’s no Alex Long, there’s no Gavin Keller, there’s none of those old kids,” Gingrich admitted candidly while alluding to the last two outings which resulted in L’s. “This week, the kids did a great job. Shoot, then on Wednesday this week, our starting middle linebacker breaks his foot just running, and didn’t touch anyone. So yeah, I was super concerned about the progress of this team moving forward.”

Okay, fair point, but in just taking the last few quarters within a vacuum, it seems as if Annville-Cleona is finally putting the pieces back together when it comes to resembling their old selves.

“In our last game against Littlestown, we won the second half 14-0. (His players) came out, hair on fire, loud and boisterous, and carried it with. The last six quarters now, we’re 42-7,” Coach G was quick to point out. “If they play with that type of heart, we have the chance to at least be competitive. For that, I was just ecstatic.”

As mentioned though, aside from the black-and-white stats and the game tape that will come from the actual football side of things in this one, the mental fortitude displayed by those in Dutchmen camp this week needs to most certainly be recognized and appreciated.

“I would say that any coach that has been doing it this long is a psychologist more than a coach,” a quasi-Dr. Gingrich stated. “I love these kids to death. I yell at them, I hug them. I was doing all of that, but I just couldn’t seem to get to them. Then I realized they were so far in their own heads that I can’t get to them until they let me get to them,” he continued. “We did switch the game plan a little. We didn’t run many things. Normally we run triple option and we did not. We hunkered down and just tried to ground and pound. Everyone is going to say, ‘Oh you ground and pound all the time,’ but we didn’t look to even pitch the ball. We didn’t do any of that. We were just keeping it inside the tackles…This was the first game this year where I got in rhythm calling plays,” said Gingrich. “I tell (his players) all the time, I can’t call a play until you execute it. Not to say that we can’t run the play well, but if you execute your blocks, then I can see what the defense is doing. Today, we blocked really well.”

To put it mildly, for everything that Annville-Cleona had gone through over the course of the last two weeks, this game against Hamburg was one where all the chips were getting pushed to the center of the table whether they wanted to or not. Well, ante up.

“I did not tell the kids, didn’t tell them all week, but as we started the game, I said, ‘We’re going to win this game, or we’re going to lose it. I’m not going to go in between.’ So, we went for it on every fourth down. We went for it all the time. I was not going to punt. I didn’t care about any of that,” Gingrich said. “That’s more of a mindset for (his players) like, ‘Hey, we’re going to play.’ I think that paid off. I think they started realizing that and coming over saying we can do this.”

“This is a huge win,” Gingrich remarked in closing with not many souls left remaining on Hawk Hill at the time late on Friday night. “This might be one of the bigger wins in our program just in the sense of the last two weeks. My wife does not like me right now, nor does anyone near me, but they’ll like me tonight,” said Gingrich with a touch of his trademark dry humor. “The key then as big as this win is if there’s no growth from here, and I’m a Michael Jordan guy, so if this is the ceiling and not the floor moving forward, then it’s pointless.”

NEXT UP: In the afterglow of this potentially tectonic plate-altering victory within Section Five that went in Annville-Cleona’s favor this week, A-C will ready themselves for a date with the Columbia Crimson Tide next Friday night for what will be the finale of a four-game road swing before returning home to scoop up what they hope amounts to another divisional win once Kutztown comes calling on the 29th before setting the table for what may very likely prove to be Section Five’s first headline matchup of the season when A-C ventures into Lancaster city to match up with the prohibitive favorite, Lancaster Catholic, as the Crusaders find themselves with ownership of a perfect 4-0 at the moment without largely being threatened based upon margin of victories.

On the Hamburg side, this setback will undoubtedly sting for a while given how it was so atypical from what the Hawks had put forth over the course of the initial three weeks of the campaign. But if we have learned one thing since the inception of the mega L-L/Berks merger that began last season, perhaps there is no division that has seen its residents benefit more in terms of competition and in turn potential long-term momentum than those programs found down in Section Five. And there is arguably no greater example of that than the Hamburg Hawks. Rest assured, a loss against Annville-Cleona or not, this has all the makings of a program that will find sturdy footing over the long haul provided that this current format remains in place. With that in mind, don’t be surprised to see the Hawks get right against Kutztown next weekend before getting their first crack against those aforementioned Crusaders on the 29th when Lancaster Catholic ventures all the way up to Hawk Hill for a key matchup. Needless to say, things appear to be going in the right direction up in the nether regions of Berks County for the red and white these days in the grand scheme of things.

Follow on Twitter @EPAFootball

Leave a Reply