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ELCO ‘Brotherhood’ Proves Vital As Raiders Overcome Fourth Quarter Deficit To Storm Past Annville-Cleona

Written by: on Friday, September 2nd, 2022. Follow Andy Herr on Twitter.


There’s an old adage floated around in football circles that goes something along the lines of this. “The greatest improvement a team can make is between Week 1 & 2.” Fair point no doubt, but man alive. If the season openers for Annville-Cleona and ELCO respectively last week were to serve as any sort of indication, both squads would certainly be more than delighted if they could perform an encore against one another on Thursday night.

For Annville-Cleona, the recent shift that came about this year within the Lancaster-Lebanon League thanks to the introduction of the 13 programs by way of Berks County has most certainly breathed some added life into the Dutchmen football program. Then again, it would be nothing if not ignorant for that to be misconstrued as the program has been on some version of football life support prior to the Berks merger. After all, seeing A-C compete for section titles and District 3 playoff berths of the like is something that has been viewed on an almost perennial basis for quite some time, the latter of which got even more attractive this season given A-C’s move down to a AA school in the District 3 rank and file we should add. However, now with the seismic change in landscape, the Dutchmen can now most certainly look at every section opponent squarely in the eye and realize that they are on an entirely level playing field in terms of competing for division supremacy. In fact, you could entertain the argument that the crop of teams right now found residing in L-L Section Five is so even that the opportunity may be ripe for the picking in terms of one of those programs perhaps establishing firm, long-standing footing by getting out in front of the others and creating a mini-dynasty if you will in terms of scooping up the next handful of section titles in a show of force against the other combatants. And sure, while that’s putting the cart well before the horse at this juncture, if A-C could replicate some of that same firepower they exerted in a dominating Week 1 victory over Hanover which saw the Dutchmen rattle off more than 400 yards on the ground in a 55-point explosion at the hands of the Nighthawks last week, especially against one of the schools biggest rivals in ELCO on a short week no less, one could argue that no team in the behemoth 37-team mega-conference, regardless of being in Section One thru Five, had jumped out to a more impressive start to the campaign than that of Annville-Cleona.

Speaking of the change in divisional scenery, the road to ho for the ELCO Raiders is now in many ways remarkably different than that of their Thursday night counterparts.

To many high school football scribes both near and far, the revamped Section Four of the Lancaster-Lebanon League may be one of the toughest divisions found inside the state. Hard to argue with that notion when you have goliaths the likes of statewide powerbrokers Berks Catholic, Cocalico, Lampeter-Strasburg, and Wyomissing to name just a few found lurking around the neighborhood these days. That said, while a school like ELCO may not necessarily steal the spotlight and headlines in terms of a larger and broader audience when compared to that of their new cohorts, rest assured that those with a more intimate knowledge of the situation aren’t foolish enough to take the group from Myerstown for granted whatsoever.

For any program, objective numero uno is most certainly to establish identity. Good news there in that regard as ELCO has precisely that. While the Raiders may not routinely sweep the board in terms of having more natural, God-given talent across the entirety of its roster than that of their opposition on a weekly basis, Raiders’ head coach Bob Miller has instilled an unmistakable DNA that combines a potent running attack — sometimes never putting the ball in the air over the course of a game at all — with that of troops who will try to bludgeon your nose and physically outwork you over the span of 48 minutes. Suffice to say, that same tried and true formula continues to work wonders year over year. Case in point, ELCO’s 44-22 triumph over a similar-type program last Friday night, West York, to get the 2022 season started off with a bang.

And with both teams coming into their grudge match after having scored a combined 99-points between them in their season debuts –with the ever-important aspect of Lebanon County bragging rights on the line of course– the Thursday night appetizer for a weekend jam-packed with nothing but pigskin might have fit in just as well had it been listed on the main course list of the menu.

Yet while they may have felt famine and underfed throughout the first three-quarters of the evening, rest assured that ELCO ultimately gorged themselves come to the end of the night.

As mentioned though, it certainly did not start off that way for the Raiders. Case in point, a botched opening kickoff return to begin the contest which allowed Annville-Cleona to set up shop at the ELCO 25-yard line with nary a play from scrimmage taking place yet. However, thanks to the efforts of their defensive troops, the Raiders’ defense was able to bow their backs and avoid any damage being inflicted upon them following the Dutchmen’s missed field goal which concluded the opening series, allowing ELCO to wipe the early sweat beads away from their brow.

But while A-C may have been stymied on their initial march, the hosts came back with a vengeance the next time their got their paws on the football.

After holding ELCO to a quick three and out following the aforementioned missed field goal try, A-C took over at the Raiders’ 46-yard line with 8:21 remaining in the first and proceeded to chug like a locomotive.

And as is typically the case, the preferred mode of transportation for the Annville-Cleona offensive unit on this drive was by way of the ground as well. Sure enough, following a successful 3rd & 3 quarterback keeper by way of senior trigger man, Gavin Keller, which gave A-C a fresh set of downs, a 20-yard burst courtesy of another fellow senior hiding in the Dutchmen backfield, tailback Phoenix Music, rumbling all the way down to the ELCO 15-yard line, ultimately helped set up an eventual 1-yard TD sneak by Keller, making it a 6-0 A-C lead which is where things remained for the final 5:20 of the opening stanza following the blocked PAT.

Nearing the waning stages of the first frame, however, the ELCO offense was able to shake free from some of its initial cobwebs and find a nice, sound rhythm.

For that, a sensational individual effort by Raiders’ running back, Jake Williams, who had worked himself free the oncoming A-C defensive soldiers for a 35-yard pickup down to the Annville-Cleona 12-yard line got the guests from nearby Myerstown in business. In fact, it took the white-clad guests all of 47 seconds to find paydirt once the second quarter got underway following Williams’ long scamper as a 10-yard TD toss from Dom Thornton to Elliot Kreider gave the Raiders their first lead of the evening, 7-6, following a Landon Kettle PAT with 11:07 remaining before the intermission.

Undeterred, however, Annville-Cleona seemed to have an immediate rebuttal.

In terms of immediate, how about the ensuing kickoff? There, a sensational kickoff return down the ELCO sideline by way of A-C senior running back/linebacker, Dominic Funk, allowed the hosts to begin their retaliation at the Raiders’ 38-yard line. That said, the eventual answer wouldn’t come easy for A-C. No, not when you consider that the Dutchmen had to navigate past a 4th & 8 attempt shortly thereafter. However, Lady Luck shined upon A-C on the said play as a rare pass from Keller to sophomore tight end, Jonathon Shay, allowed A-C to move the sticks following the 16-yard pickup between the pair. Then, going back to their beloved bread and butter of the option attack, an 11-yard touchdown jaunt by Phoenix Music put the Dutchmen back in front, 12-7, following an unsuccessful two-point attempt with 7:15 left to go before the break.

Not to be left out, Annville-Cleona’s defense promptly decided to begin wreaking havoc in their own right their next time out on the field.

For that, a strip sack by A-C’s Damien Miller which led to an eventual fumble recovery by Darrian Holloway for the Dutchmen D, allowed the Annville-Cleona offense to take over at the ELCO 38-yard line. And while the Annville-Cleona offense would give the oblong pill right back following a botched quarterback-center exchange, the brooding and unwelcoming nature already exhibited by the A-C defense was on full display once again.

While takeaways are marvelous in their own right, points-off turnovers are something entirely different. Suffice to say, A-C’s Cameron Connelly found himself in an especially greedy mood his next time out on the pitch as evidenced by his 15-yard interception return for a score which created a 19-7 bulge up on the scoreboard following an Anthony Lucera PAT, a score while allowed the Dutchmen to sail into the halftime recess with the wind at their backs once the final 1:32 ticked off the first half clock.

In short, while Annville-Cleona had been able to keep ELCO at arm’s length throughout much of the contest up until that point, the overall sense that the Dutchmen had yet to formally slug a knockout blow to the opposition hung thick in the night air. Simply put, if the Raiders could just hang around and hang around as the game got later and later, coupled with a break and spark intermingled within that of course, ELCO would almost certainly find themselves right back in the hunt despite their current 12-point deficit. Well, with that in mind, let’s fast forward to the waning stages of the third period, shall we?

With time starting to bleed away inside the third, Annville-Cleona found themselves on the precipice of landing that TKO. With the ball just sitting five yards away from what surely felt like the death-nail in the Raiders’ excursion into enemy territory on this night, a glimmer of hope in the form of an ill-timed A-C fumble and subsequent recovery by the Raiders’ D breathed life into the ELCO troops. And just as he had done in the final moments of the first quarter as well, a crucial run through the Dutchmen’s defense by way of running back, Jake Williams, put an extra pep in the Raiders’ step once the final quarter got underway with his fellow teammates playing with a level of abandon and determination that could only be exercised while being totally unphased by an existing two-touchdown hole.

Speaking of Mr. Williams, he continued to be a 5’11 180lb thorn in A-C’s side all night long.

Following his long run to close the third, Williams proceeded to barrel his way over the Dutchmen’s defense, literally, leaving would-be tacklers behind in his wake as the Raiders’ offense found themselves on A-C’s side of the field with the ball resting on the ELCO 45-yard line. Ironically, while ELCO has and likely always will love to bully the opposition up front on the line scrimmage while bringing a hard-charging running attack in right behind the big boys up front, it was ironically a touchdown strike through the air which really put a lump in A-C’s collective throat.

Just as they did in the first half of play, a touchdown connection from the arm of Dom Thornton to the waiting hands of Elliot Kreider proved lethal as far as ELCO was concerned as the 56-yard scoring strike between the pair, their second such exchange of the contest, ushered the Raiders within five at 19-14 with 11:11 still left to play.

And if momentum is a key factor for you in determining how it can affect an outcome, rest assured that it was most certainly residing on ELCO’s sideline at that point in time.

After forcing A-C into a three and out on the Dutchmen’s ensuing offensive series following the ELCO score, the Raiders took over at the midfield stripe with 9:31 left to play and some unfinished business left to attend to.

Looking for Jake Williams? Yeah, so too was the A-C defense as well given Williams’ 25-yard burst up in the middle on ELCO’s initial offensive play on the new series. But yet again, here came the Raiders with a sudden aerial assault of sorts. Of course, having to get past a piece of yellow laundry innocently laying out on the natural grass surface was something altogether different as the unfortunate holding call whistled against the ELCO offense had not only wiped away what would have stood firm as the go-ahead Raiders’ score, but it also simultaneously set up a 3rd & 15 attempt back on the A-C 30-yard line. And if that wasn’t already enough salt in the wound, what would have been another surefire touchdown had it not been for an overthrown pass on said third and long led to ELCO staring down the barrel of a dangerous fourth and long scenario.

No matter though for ELCO quarterback, Dom Thornton.

Putting aside the most recent frustration of what was surely felt following what had just happened in the previous two plays, Thornton came back with a gutty and determined scramble that could have just as easily served as a microcosm for the night as a whole as Thornton’s galivant through the Dutchmen defense on 4th & 15 not only gave A-C a fresh set of downs, but it also put the ball on the A-C 8-yard line. From there, a 10-yard TD run by the man of the hour, Jake Williams, coupled with his two-point conversion attempt no less, allowed ELCO to surge out in front and take command, 22-19, with 5:33 left to play.

At this stage, things had suddenly gone from comfortable to precarious for Annville-Cleona in what had to feel like the blink of an eye. True, but while the Dutchmen’s boat had started to take on water at this point, they still had the means to shovel some of the liquid out. That is to say of course that the chore would be far from easy mind you. In fact, Annville-Cleona found themselves having to negotiate past a 4th & 3 attempt at their own 37-yard line in a true do-or-die scenario as the game hung in the balance. Fortunately, as far as the hometown patrons were concerned, Phoenix Music proceeded to rip off a jolly-good tune as the senior’s long gainer down the A-C sideline propelled the Dutchmen all the way down to the Raiders’ 23-yard line.

But alas, just as they had struggled to do throughout much of the night, hold onto the football, A-C’s sixth fumble of the evening was by far its most damaging as the second of two key thefts for the ELCO defense on this night all but slammed the door on the Dutchmen’s chances.  For the slamming assignment, of course, the Raiders turned and handed the ball off to, you guessed it, Jake Williams, as Williams’ long run on an upcoming 3rd & 3 put the game away for good for ELCO as the Raiders’ 12-point fourth quarter comeback was finally etched into stone by virtue of the 22-19 final count over their county counterparts from Annville-Cleona, whipping the Raiders’ traveling contingent into a frenzy in the aftermath of their unrelenting triumph.

Afterward, as one may have imagined, any and all parties who had been residing on the ELCO sidelines for the past two and a half hours were understandably effusive in showing their excitement for what they had just accomplished. Chief among them no less, Raiders’ head man, Bob Miller.

“That tells the story. These guys, there’s no quit in them,” said Miller with the utmost pride regarding his troops after addressing them directly in the postgame scrum. “They’re not putting their heads down, looking at the scoreboard, they play every single play. Mistakes are made, mistakes that we have to clean up, but there’s never a heart or an effort question.”

And truth be told, that same mindset never wavered on Thursday night, even despite everything that was working against them for what felt like a large portion of the contest.

“They’re freaking excited every play,” Miller continued of his team. “One of our things is to never look at the scoreboard. There was maybe a flat time or two tonight, but I don’t tell them. That’s not my job. I’m not the cheerleader. You guys need to provide excitement and energy for your teammates and hold your teammates out on the field accountable. I don’t ever feel like we have a ‘down’ sideline. There’s never any blame going around. We were pretty pumped up for a team that played for most of the night down.”

But if you had to find what may have been one determining catalyst as to why ELCO was able to surge ahead once and for all on Thursday against a rival aside from purely an X & O execution standpoint, one word just needs to be said- culture.

“This was a win that was demonstrative of their heart,” said the Raiders’ head man. “These guys have it. The brotherhood, man. They pick each other up after some of these mistakes saying, ‘We got it, we got it.’ I would say it was their brotherhood and their heart that did this.”

NEXT UP: Fresh off their newly minted 2-0 record, ELCO will continue to live life on the road in their quest to remain perfect in the early going as the Raiders travel to what used to be a fellow section foe, no longer, however, as the band of brothers will head southward to tangle with Columbia next Friday night on the eastern banks of the Susquehanna.

For Annville-Cleona, this loss will surely take some time to work through. Aside from the fact that it was the Dutchmen’s fourth consecutive loss to ELCO, the sting that comes with surrendering a 12-point fourth-quarter lead surely makes it that much more arduous. But as is life in high school football, there’s no off-ram to stand by the side of the road and take a breather when it comes to licking your wounds. Time waits for no man in this game and the Littlestown Thunderbolts certainly won’t plan on being very hospitable houseguests when they roll into Annville next Friday evening in what figures to be a key litmus test for demonstrating what the Dutchmen have in their collective tanks following this difficult setback.

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