Cocalico Explodes Past Cedar Cliff, Into State Semifinal Round As Eagles Claim District 3-5A Championship
No matter what the sport and no matter what the competition level, there are always some undeniable truths that always come to light when talking about the postseason. Chief among them, and perhaps the most tantalizing of all, is the prospect of rematches. And if we’re talking about the 5A level within District 3, there was arguably no team that entered the postseason hungrier at the chance of getting revenge than the Cedar Cliff Colts.
You see, if you were to hit the rewind button on your 2019 high school football season remote and flash all way back in Week 2 of this year, you’d find the Cocalico Eagles setting out on a westward trek to the western shore of the Susquehanna River for a rare Thursday night tussle with the homestanding Cedar Cliff Colts for a scholastic football contest that helped raise the curtain on Labor Day Weekend. But truth be told, it wasn’t much of a contest really.
On that night, one the best players ever to put on a Cocalico uniform, Noah Palm, ran over, around, and through the Colts’ defense, accounting for five total touchdowns from his quarterback spot. Speaking of defense, the Eagles’ ace of a safety was equally imposing in fulfilling that role as well, proving as to why he will be a New Hampshire Wildcat come this time next year, as Palm helped patrol the secondary and helped keep the lid on an explosive Cedar Cliff offense all night long. And once all was ultimately said and done at the end of that late summer night now 86 days ago, Palm and his Cocalico teammates had largely run roughshod over a tough group of Colts to the tune of an eye-popping 43-15 final count.
And while many may have left West Shore Stadium back on August 29th thinking that the trajectory of both the Cocalico and Cedar Cliff seasons still yet to unfold resembled stark upward and downward arrows made famous by the New York Stock Exchange, the underlying fact of the matter was that the opportunity was ripe in terms of purchasing stock in both the Eagles and Colts from that point on.
Since their setback at the hands of Cocalico, arguably no one in District 3, certainly within 5A mind you, had been playing much better football coming into the weekend than the group hailing from Camp Hill. Aside from one more defeat, this coming against eventual District 3-6A semifinalist Harrisburg the very next week, Cedar Cliff became a tour de force from that point on, as the Colts bucked their way to nine consecutive victories. In fact, since the Harrisburg game, Cedar Cliff had largely rolled their opposition, averaging just a smidgen shy of 35 points per game, thanks in large part the school’s now all-time leading rusher who carries the Colts’ mail every day including Christmas, senior tail-back, Jaheim Morris. Through it all, the Colts were ultimately able to lay claim to the #2 seed in the District 3-5A bracket, all while likely simultaneously salivating at the prospect of another date with the #1 seed should the brackets hold serve.
Who was the top-seed you ask? Why none other than the Cocalico Eagles of course.
Sure, while some may have scoffed at the notion of a two-loss Eagles’ outfit securing the top spot, including over some other teams that went a perfect 10-0 throughout the entirely of the regular season in fact, it had likely appeared to some that this may have been one occasion where the mathematical formula had truly married up with the eye-test.
If you want to talk numbers, the Eagles will certainly entertain that conversation with you. How does a nice, round, even figure sound? Good? Okay, great. What is the number? How about 39? That’s right. 39 points per game is what Cocalico was averaging coming into their tussle with the hard-charging Colts. And when you factor in the hard reality that such a monstrous average is still nonetheless computed with a modest 7-point outing that the Eagles were only able to muster against Lancaster-Lebanon League bully, Manheim Township, that number somehow becomes even more staggering than it already is. And while the Eagles offense routinely steals the show, and rightly so given those types of astronomical numbers that would make even a NASA scientist blush, it was the Cocalico defense which was without a shadow of a doubt the key ingredient as to why the gang from Denver found themselves in a game of this magnitude.
Just last week, in a game in which Cocalico found themselves as the rare underdog underneath the bright lights and friendly confines of Eagle Stadium to fifth-seeded Warwick, the Cocalico defense troops rose to the challenge time after time after time, stifling the one of the state’s most prolific offensive units to a rather pedestrian 13-point outing, including negating a last-second Warrior Hail Mary attempt, en route to a resounding 21-13 semifinal round victory.
So, with the Colts having taken care of New Oxford and Exeter respectively in their first two postseason showings and Cocalico having gotten the better of Governor Mifflin and Warwick in their first two playoff outings as well, the stage was set for what promised to be a wildly entertaining District 3-5A championship tilt as the brackets did indeed result in chalk, with #2 Cedar Cliff getting off at the Denver exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike for a heavyweight fight against the homestanding Eagles. Only this time however, there was far, far more riding on the line than that previous matchup nearly 90 days ago. Now, with a win, not only would the victor end the night by taking many celebratory pictures while posing with a new piece of hard-earned District 3 hardware that will ultimately be prominently displayed somewhere in the front of their school’s trophy case, but either the Colts or the Eagles would also find themselves just one more triumph shy of playing for the ultimate prize, a state championship.
Yet even though the calendar now read November, this one felt eerily similar to that of the game played way back on that late August night.
It didn’t even take that long for Cocalico to make such a resounding opening statement either. In fact, the Eagles needed all of two plays in order to find the end zone which is precisely what happened when sophomore running back Steven Flinton took off on a 59-yard gallop and didn’t stop until he had crossed the chalk line as the homestanding Eagles had quickly jumped their hosts, 7-0, a mere 38 seconds into the contest following Flinton’s long touchdown stroll.
From that point on, the eventual outcome was never really in doubt.
Needless to say, Cedar Cliff’s opening possession would not be nearly as successful as the one their hosts had just enjoyed. In fact, it would be far worse.
With the Cedar Cliff offense facing a 3rd & 12 at their own 31-yard line, the Eagles’ defense rose to the challenge and not only stymied the Colts, they stole their dreams and aspirations along the way, as Eagles’ senior linebacker Cody Shay read his keys and nabbed the errant Colts’ pass and proceeded to race all the way back to the Colts’ 10-yard line with his newfound prize. From there, the Eagles muddled their way through their next series, if you want to call it that of course considering the sensational fashion in which their opening drive had just occurred. And while it wouldn’t take Cocalico two plays to reach the end zone on this series, they would only have to wait just one more play longer as senior quarterback Noah Palm’s 1-yard touchdown plunge allowed the Eagles to see their lead expand out to 14-0 after just five offensive plays from scrimmage with 9:11 still showing on the first quarter clock.
In short, Cedar Cliff needed something, anything really, in order to stop the bleeding and offer some sort of counterpunch to the early haymakers in which Cocalico had been able to land upon the Colts. Thankfully for the Cedar Cliff contingent, it had appeared initially that the Colts had finally found some much-needed offensive mojo when Cedar Cliff junior quarterback, Gannon McMeans, was able to connect with senior wideout Jahiem Reynolds for the 16-yard pitch and catch which moved the sticks on a 3rd & 13 play. And with Jaheim Morris serving as the Colts’ battering ram with a series of powerful runs peppered into the mix just for good measure, Cedar Cliff was finally able to make their way into Eagles’ territory for the first time. But alas, there was trouble afoot shortly thereafter as a high snap from center spelled doom for the Colts’ chances of picking up the 3rd & 8 task placed before them, with Cocalico eventually taking over at their own 30-yard line following the Cedar Cliff punt.
If you’re already sensing a theme here of Cocalico scoring early and often, your feeling is certainly warranted. At least that’s certainly what the Colts’ defense largely had to be thinking as well after witnessing Noah Palm proceed to take off and race around the right side of the line on the option keeper for a 40-yard sprint on the first play of the Eagles’ ensuing offensive series. And with Palm already clearly in a groove, the Eagles’ triggerman continued his to show off his doctorate-level mastery of running the Veer attack, promptly calling his own number for a 27-yard touchdown burst, which gave the Eagles the now gargantuan 21-0 cushion with 2:39 still left in the opening period.
Unfortunately for Cedar Cliff, the narrative quickly went from bad to worse.
On the ensuing kickoff following Palm’s second touchdown of the young evening, the Colts coughed up the ball, only to bear witness to a swarm of Eagles swarm descend upon the loose pill as Cocalico was primed and ready to maul Cedar Cliff even more so following the turnover. That said, it appeared as though the Colts may have finally solved the riddle that was the Cocalico offense somewhat after senior defensive lineman Albert Rosado burst his way through the Eagles’ line and picked up a key tackle for loss, setting up a 3rd & 5 play for the Cocalico offensive troops with the ball resting just outside the Cedar Cliff red zone. However, even despite the flash exhibited by way of the Cedar Cliff defense on the Rosado TFL, the Eagles were quickly rewarded with a fresh set of downs on the very next play with Steven Flinton taking the toss and navigating his way for an 8-yard pickup, putting the ball on the Cedar Cliff 15-yard line, while also moving the sticks in the Eagles’ favor once the first quarter eventually came to a close.
Once the second quarter got underway, Cocalico continued to exhibit no issues whatsoever in adding more points to their already emphatic lead. Case in point, Alex Mellinger’s 31-yard field goal through the uprights which capped off the Cocalico possession with the Eagles seeing their lead now swell to 24-0 with just 14 seconds having ticked off the second quarter clock.
Yet no matter whether it was a field goal or a touchdown, the band only continued to play on for Cocalico the remainder of the night.
After turning the Cedar Cliff offense away on a three and out, punctuated by a punishing stop at the line of scrimmage from Eagles’ senior lineman Brock Gingrich and several of closest friends donning blue jerseys and white helmets, the Cocalico offense went right back on the prowl following the Cedar Cliff punt.
If ever it felt like you could literally see a team just impose its collective will upon its opposition, it would be on this Cocalico series. Palm to Zahm for 15 yards. Austin Vang up the gut for 14 more yards. A toss to Steven Flinton for another 13 yards. Needless to say, the chunks of yardage were seemingly just melting away in favor of the Eagles like an ice cream cone on a hot summer’s day with Cocalico’s offense appropriately playing the role of the scorching-hot sun. And before anyone knew it, Cocalico had suddenly found itself celebrating in the end zone once again as Ronald Zahm’s 2-yard touchdown scamper made it a 31-0 affair in Cocalico’s favor with 6:22 still left to go before intermission.
Speaking of intermission, that likely couldn’t have come soon enough for Cedar Cliff.
Unfortunately for them however, the Colts were hit with another bout of the turnover bug before the first half was over with after seeing Noah Palm race up from his safety spot and jump on the loose pigskin for a timely fumble recovery which allowed the Eagles to set up shop at the Cedar Cliff 12-yard line. And just as had been able to do moments earlier, Ronald Zahm found his way into the end zone at the conclusion of this drive as well, allowing the Cocalico faithful to voice their roars of approval as the Eagles trotted off into the locker with a decisive 38-0 lead after the final eight seconds evaporated off the second quarter clock following the senior running back’s second consecutive touchdown tote.
Once the second half got underway, it was apparent that Cocalico still had fine-tuning yet to do before the night was over and done with.
So, with that in mind, the Eagles’ starting defense allowed just one Cedar Cliff first down on the Colts’ opening series coming out of the dressing room before bowing up and ultimately forcing a punt. And with Cocalico now setting up shop at their own 49-yard line following the exchange in possession, it appeared rather likely that another Eagles’ score would prove to be in the cards. Sure enough, thanks in large part to a handful of power runs administered to the Cedar Cliff defense by Cocalico sophomore running back Austin Vang, the Eagles’ offense already appeared to be lathered up once again following the halftime break. Indeed, that most certainly proved to be the case with Noah Palm promptly displaying his sensational ball-handling in running the Cocalico triple option attack for all to see, including a host of mystified Colts standing on the defensive side more importantly, as Palm darted his way into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown jaunt which gave the Eagles a 45-0 lead with 5:14 left to play in a fast moving third period.
Once the game reached the fourth quarter and the outcome being nothing more than an official score to go into the history books as at this point in the proceedings, it was good to see Cedar Cliff round up the cavalry and mount one last charge despite knowing their memorable season just about set to expire. And perhaps it could not have ended in a more apropos way as Jaheim Morris took the handoff and proceeded to blaze his way into the end zone for the 12-yard touchdown run, trimming the Cocalico lead to 45-7 with 9:25 left to go.
Yet as mentioned, the damage inflicted by the Eagles right from the starting gun proved to be more than enough as Cocalico bullied their way past Cedar Cliff en route to capturing the District 3-5A title, along with securing a bid to next week’s state semifinal round in the second largest classification system in the process, 45-7.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words right now,” Cocalico head coach Dave Gingrich said while wearing a District 3 gold medal now draped around his neck. “That’s a great team over there,” Gingrich added of his team’s opposition on Friday night. “Cedar Cliff lost two games all year. They lost to us and they lost to Harrisburg, so it’s not like they lost to the JCPenny poster boys. That’s a quality team and for our kids to come out and play inspired football the way they did, I couldn’t be more proud of the group.”
And in terms of sheer Cocalico athletic history, regardless of the sport, the 2019 varsity football team is sure to be one that ranks up there with some of the very teams that the Eagles have ever fielded.
“Earlier in the week I went through the (Cocalico) gymnasium and counted all the district team championships that our school has had,” said Gingrich. “We’ve had eight. I went through the eight to the kids. Most were in the 70’s, a couple in the 80’s, and a couple in the 90’s. It’s very special to be number nine with this group of kids.”
Yet even though some may have presumed that Cocalico might have had a natural tendency to sleep on their opposition given the way in which the scoreboard proved to be so much in their favor following their Week 2 battle, it was clear that Cocalico still had plenty of retribution left to attain for following their earlier matchup with Cedar Cliff.
“I thought we would do a pretty good job defensively. I know those guys were a little embarrassed by what happened last time,” Gingrich said when referencing his defensive outfit. “I mean, we gave up 460 yards of offense. They took that personally. They didn’t like that. I thought we tried to come out and make a statement early. We just played with great emotion and execution. You could tell all week that they were ready to go.”
As Coach Gingrich had mentioned earlier in the postgame, his team’s victory on this cold, late November night had made them the ninth team in school history to have a district championship trophy housed somewhere in the Eagles’ athletic trophy case. And while it may only be the school’s third football crown, there have certainly been plenty of Cocalico football teams, particularly of recent memory, who have fallen just short of the precipice of history. But not this group. There’s just a subtle, secret sauce to this group which makes them inherently different.
“I think what this team has is that they have a belief and a love for one another,” said Gingrich. “They play really, really hard. And we’ve had a lot of other teams played really hard as well. They (2019 team) have a lot of confidence. They don’t get down on themselves. Bad play here, bad play there, bad series here, bad series there, they’re okay. Especially this last month. They’ve really, really been great and supportive to one another. It’s evident when you come out here and play the way we did. We just played such inspired football and I think everyone just does their job.”
But perhaps what made Friday night’s victory most unique and most rewarding was the fact that the Eagles were crowned as District 3 champions on their home field right in front of their hometown fans as opposed to winning a championship in an oft-less than intimate and relatively stale and corporate atmosphere that used to be offered when playing the District 3 championships inside venerable Hersheypark Stadium. If nothing else, it certainly makes the police and fire truck escort around the town of Denver occur that much sooner, such as it did once the procession got underway in the Eagle Stadium parking lot once all the pictures had been taken and the many offerings of congratulations had generously been handed out to the victors. Suffice to say, it was a scene not lost on the Eagles’ head man.
“Coaching football, I wouldn’t say its stressful. There’s a lot of energy, a lot of emotion, and a lot of things going on, but I’ve always been a big believer of community,” Gingrich said while witnessing the townspeople interact with their triumphant heroes. “It’s bigger than us.”
“Those Manheim Central games,” said Gingrich of Cocalico’s chief rival, “When you win, there’s nothing better. When you lose a Manheim Central game, you feel like you let your whole community down. We’ve done enough of that to where this was really, really special to me that we have finally given this community who has supported us for so long, we’ve given them something to cheer about.”
NEXT UP: With their win over Cedar Cliff on Friday night, Cocalico now sets sail for a date in the state semifinals against District 1 champion Cheltenham against a Panthers squad sure to be riding the high of Friday night’s dramatic 43-42 win over Academy Park, at a site and time to be determined later this weekend by the brass in the PIAA head office. That said, the venue will be one somewhere nearby Cocalico’s campus as it is District 3’s turn to host the game given the fact that Manheim Central was forced to load up and travel down to Wissahickon High School located in Ambler when the Barons tangled with Upper Dublin hailing from District 1 in the exact same game just one year ago.
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