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ELCO Completes Frantic Comeback, Locks Up Playoff Big In Wild Regular Season Finale Against Columbia

Written by: on Saturday, October 26th, 2019. Follow Andy Herr on Twitter.


It’s funny sometimes how life has a way of meandering its way back around full circle. In many ways, high school football is also quite capable of providing a prevailing sense of deja vu. Should you need proof, just look back 364 days ago to when ELCO and Columbia last met up against one another on the football field.

In that game nearly one calendar year ago to the day, the Raiders traveled south to the banks of the Susquehanna to tangle with the upstart Crimson Tide, all while finding themselves in a true “do or die” scenario. In many respects, the situation really could not have been any simpler for the Raiders that dreary, damp evening up on “The Hill.” Should ELCO have hiccupped and stumbled against Columbia, they were almost sure to be locked out of the District 3 playoff field which was scheduled to get underway the very next week. To their credit, the Raiders truly maximized the most of their opportunity, ultimately squashing Columbia to the tune of a 50-28 triumph. And perhaps the most staggering part of the entire evening? ELCO threw the ball only one time. One. And it came on a two-point conversion no less.

Sure enough, this Friday night would present itself in the very same fashion for the home-standing Raiders.

In terms of the entire Lancaster-Lebanon League when measured from top to bottom, there arguably was no hotter team coming into the final night of the regular season than ELCO. Why? Well, for one, the Raiders entered their date with Columbia while riding a six-game winning streak. Secondly, in their last five victories, ELCO was seen prevailing by an average of nearly 23 points. Needless to say, when you find yourself winning by four scores every time you step on the field as of late, it certainly appears that you’re hitting your stride at exactly the right time.  And for all their recent work, the Raiders entered the night residing on the #10 seed line in the 4A field: The absolute last ticket into the dance.

But it wasn’t always that way.

For as well as ELCO had been playing coming into the weekend, it could also be argued that no one in the L-L League experienced two harder gut-punches out of the gate than the Raiders considering their 0-2 start to the season — with both losses cruelly coming at the bitter end to Susquenita and Lebanon respectively—before ELCO eventually dipped to 0-3 following a 28-7 setback against eventual Section 3 champion, Lancaster Catholic. Yet even through their early season difficulties, those in Raiders’ camp remained steadfast on keeping the ship afloat and pointed in the right direction.

“Those games were tight,” ELCO head coach Rob Miller said harkening back to week 4 practices earlier this season. “It was never like we got pounded or there were problems. We just lost a couple close ballgames. The fact that we (coaches) didn’t have to pick them up is a testament to the leadership of the kids that we have.”

Yet while most of the focus may have solely focused on how the Raiders would handle their “playoffs” beginning a bit earlier than most other teams given their current situation, the Crimson Tide would be the furthest thing from a pushover for ELCO to toy around with, especially given the intensity Columbia was sure to bring with them considering the manner in which last year’s affair went down. But last year aside however, this has proven to be a Columbia squad through the first nine weeks of the season that has reinvigorated the phrase, “basketball on grass.”

Yes, aside from the fact many of Columbia’s skill position players will soon be lacing up the sneaks once again and rediscovering themselves back into the Tide’s trademark 2-3 zone — for an upcoming basketball season with very high aspirations too I might add — the numbers in which Columbia had been putting up on the scoreboards around the league this year had been nothing short of mind-boggling. In all, the Tide had not scored fewer than 19 points in any one game this season. Okay, while maybe that doesn’t move the needle all that much for some, consider the fact that the Tide entered the night while riding a two-game winning streak. A streak which oh by the way saw them score a combined total of 114 points in that pair of triumphs. And even though Columbia’s postseason aspirations were considerably far murkier than ELCO’s heading into the night, it certainly appeared that a track meet was about to ensue on Friday night south of Myerstown.

And what a track meet it was.

As far as ELCO was concerned, it took the Raiders all of one play to reach the endzone when junior quarterback turned part-time utility man, Braden Bohannon, took the dive from the fullback position right up the heart of the Columbia defense for the ultra-quick, 75-yard touchdown burst on the first play from scrimmage, giving the Raiders the early 6-0 cushion after the PAT sailed wide just 15 seconds into the contest.

But as would be the case throughout the evening, Columbia would have a rebuttal to ELCO’s early success.

Although it was far lengthier compared to ELCO’s first march of the evening, it would still prove to be just as fruitful. Part of the reason for its longevity would be a direct reflection on the Crimson Tide being able to pick up countless third and fourth down conversions along the way. The first of said conversions came by way of Columbia senior quarterback Matt McCleary calling his own number to move the chains on a short 4th & 1 from the Tide’s own 44-yard line. From there, McCleary showed off his trademark passing ability, hooking up with senior wideout Ryan Redding for the 7-yard pitch and catch on a 3rd & 1 attempt, prolonging the Tide attack down to the Raiders’ 39-yard line.

Yet that wouldn’t be the last that those in attendance would hear from the McCleary-Redding duo. As almost as if to be right on cue with Columbia staring at a 4th & 9 attempt from the ELCO 37-yard line, the Crimson Tide entrusted the prolific senior combination to help move the chains. Sure enough, that is exactly what took place when McCleary found a wide-open Redding who had leaked out behind the ELCO secondary for the 37-yard touchdown strike, making it a 6-6 affair with 7:35 left in the first after the Tide’s PAT also sailed wide of the uprights.

What you can do, we can do better. Although that might not always be the methodology in high school football, that narrative quickly seemed to be taking shape on Friday evening.

On ELCO’s ensuing drive following the Columbia answer, the Raiders began methodically moving the ball down the field behind a solid mixture of runs from both Braden Bohannon and fellow quarterback Cole Thomas. And after a quick burst up the gut from Erik Williams, the Raiders suddenly found themselves knocking on the door again, with the ball now sitting at the Tide 3-yard line. From there, Bohannon was able to cap the march off in style with a 1-yard touchdown plunge which allowed ELCO to regain control at 13-6 following the PAT booted home by Reece Shuey with 2:51 left to play in an already electric first quarter of play.

But just as they had done before, Columbia continued to remain unphased by ELCO’s early successes.

In fact, after a dynamite run from Crimson Tide junior running back Justin Elliott with a personal foul added on top against ELCO, Columbia had immediately reentered Raider territory after just one play as the Tide now set up shop at the ELCO 40-yard line. But it wasn’t always calm waters for the Tide on this drive. Yes, even despite their early prosperity on the series, Columbia was faced with the upmost form of adversity coming in a 4th & 18 attempt from the Raiders’ 38-yard line later on in the drive. Incredibly enough however, Columbia dialed up the perfect play call for such an occasion as McCleary was able to find junior wideout Keegin Zink for the 18-yard hookup to extend the Crimson Tide drive on the first play of the second stanza. From there, McCleary kept attacking through the air with a magnificent slant to Ryan Redding, moving the Tide down to the ELCO 5. And with McCleary piloting the attack the entire way, it seemed apropos that he be the one to finish things off which he did with a 5-yard touchdown run which cut the ELCO lead down to the slimmest of margins at 13-12 after the failed two-point conversion attempt with 10:12 left in the first half.

At this point, the fans in attendance had been treated to a tennis match of sorts considering each team had been able to find the endzone on each of their first two drives respectively. But that quickly was about to change.

Even still, it likely didn’t appear that way considering ELCO took over at the midfield stripe following the ensuing Columbia squib kick. However, the Raiders’ drive would meet an untimely end as an ELCO fumble was quickly pounced on by Columbia’s Ryan Redding, giving the Crimson Tide the ball back at their own 45-yard line.

From there, the Tide wasted little time in retaking the lead as McCleary was able to lob a perfect pass down the middle to a streaking Michael Poole for the 55-yard touchdown bomb on the first play of the drive, allowing Columbia to go back out in front. Or so they thought. Despite the white-clad celebration now taking place in the endzone, there was also a celebration taking place on the ELCO sidelines considering an ill-timed holding call whistled against the Tide brought the preceding events all the way back, squelching the Crimson Tide’s newfound mojo. Sure enough, the Tide would be unable to regain their traction following the holding call as an interception shortly thereafter authored by ELCO senior defensive back Evan Huey along the Columbia sideline allowed the Raiders to retake possession at their own 37-yard line.

But with defense clearly being a premium given the manner in which both teams were seen going up and down the field through much of the first half on Friday night, Columbia was able to come up with a vital stop on the ensuing ELCO series as a sack registered by Crimson Tide junior Darnell Tucker on 3rd & 20 helped give the visitors excellent field position on the change of possession with Columbia starting off at their own 45-yard line.

For as much as Columbia is knowing for chucking the ball all over the yard, the Crimson Tide also boasts a lightning bolt of a running back in junior jitterbug, Justin Elliott. And with Elliott showing off his exploits earlier in the contest, the Tide continued to ride their stellar back on the first few plays on the ensuing Tide drive which clearly got Columbia started off on the right foot, allowing Columbia to regain their offensive rhythm. From there, the Tide’s bread and butter air attack continued to be in high demand as a McCleary dart to Darnell Tucker moved Columbia down to the ELCO 25-yard line. So, with Elliott already having gotten lathered up and into a groove, it understandable to see him bursting around the left side of the line for a 15-yard scamper which moved the Tide inside the ELCO 10-yard line, making a Crimson Tide touchdown feel imminent. Sure enough, Columbia was able to find the endzone as a 10-yard touchdown toss from McCleary to junior Demetrius Diaz, McCleary’s third overall touchdown of the young evening, propelled the Tide out to 18-13 advantage after the failed two-point conversion attempt, which is precisely where things would remain when the two teams retired to their respective dressing rooms once the final 1:58 ticked off the first half clock.

It’s often been said in football that the first drive of the second half is the most important. Yet oft-used cliché or not, that couldn’t have been truer for ELCO once the third quarter got underway. In essence, if the Raiders allowed the Tide to punch in another score, their chances for winning and clinching that desired playoff bid would drop significantly. So, with that in mind, the Raiders needed their best defensive series of the year. No understatement needed.

Even still, no one needed to tell Columbia how important their first drive out of the break would be either. And with Columbia eager to make things interesting in their own right in terms of perhaps snatching up a playoff spot in the 2A field, the Tide put together a promising march. How promising you ask? Consider the fact that the Tide was able to pick up a 3rd & 28 along the way when McCleary was able to find senior receiver Julius Martinez for the long strike which moved Columbia down to the Raiders’ 24-yard line. From there, the Crimson Tide continued to move, getting all the way down the ELCO 13-yard line. But needing a stand, the ELCO defense dug deep. And with their season hanging in the balance, the Raiders refused to give even an inch from then on as a marvelous deflection from ELCO junior linebacker Jordan Fernandez on a 3rd & 10 pass across the middle set up a 4th & 10 attempt which would sail incomplete, allowing the ELCO troops to wipe the sweat off their collective foreheads for the moment as the Raiders took over albeit deep in their own territory.

So, with the Raiders having dodged a massive bullet coming out of the intermission, a subsequent ELCO score would do wonders for helping set the narrative the rest of the way home. And a Raider touchdown certainly seemed to be in the works with senior bruiser Erik Williams taking the option pitch and screaming around the left side of the line for the long run down all the way down to the Columbia 39-yard line as the ELCO snowball was now picking up a full head of steam. Yet even for all the momentum that the hosts had clearly engineered, Columbia too was able to dig deep and find something inside themselves as well considering a Titanic-like sack tallied by Crimson Tide senior Matt Gambler which set up a 3rd & 23 attempt for the Raiders who now found themselves residing on their own 47-yard line. However, the once-promising ELCO drive quickly went from bad to worse as an interception collected by Columbia’s Keegin Zink on said 3rd & 23 allowed momentum to shift back over to the Crimson Tide sideline once the fourth quarter got underway.

With just 12 minutes left to go, it went without saying that any Columbia-generated score the rest of the way would spell doom for ELCO’s prospects of extending their season at least one more week. But Columbia didn’t care. They had arrived in Lebanon County with bad intentions.

All game long, the Crimson Tide’s ability to remain on the field despite the numerous third and fourth downs put forth against them truly was staggering. And with that in mind, it didn’t seem all that farfetched to witness the Crimson Tide keep their drive alive on a 4th & 4 attempt which is precisely what happened when Matt McCleary was able to connect with Darnell Tucker for the 6-yard pitch and catch, moving the Tide advance down to the ELCO 23-yard line. So, with the Tide facing another lengthy third down, this one of the 3rd & 11 variety, Columbia was able to extend their march courtesy of a defensive pass interference call whistled against the Raiders, giving the Crimson Tide a fresh set of downs with the ball now resting at the Raiders’ 11-yard line. If you’re sensing a prevailing theme here, you’d probably suspect that Columbia would be able to make good on their upcoming 3rd& 6 attempt at the Raiders’ 7-yard line. Yes indeed. On said play, Matt McCleary was able to find his favorite target, Ryan Redding, for the 7-yard touchdown strike between the lethal tandem which allowed the Crimson Tide to go up by a monstrous 24-13 count with 9:44 left after the failed two-point conversion attempt.

Despite their less than desirable current predicament, ELCO still had two critical weapons left in their toolbox that would enable them to start chiseling away at the 11-point Crimson Tide lead. First, an undying belief in one another to overcome whatever is placed before them. Secondly, the never say die attitude of Braden Bohannon.

And with the two working in perfect harmony with one another, Bohannon began shouldering most of the burden on the Raiders’ ensuing drive, collecting chunks of yards at will, all while refusing to go down on first, second, and even third contact. But perhaps no bigger play of the evening was registered than on an ELCO 4th & 5 attempt with the ball sitting at Crimson Tide’s 18-yard line. With everyone in the house knowing what was about to take place, it didn’t seem to matter one bit as Bohannon got the rock and rumbled all the way down to the ELCO 6-yard line, giving those in attendance a belief that perhaps ELCO could pull this off. To say that belief took a giant step forward would be a bit of an understatement once Erik Williams dashed into the endzone for the 4-yard touchdown run with a subsequent Bohannon run on the two-point conversion attempt added on top, a flurry of scoring which immediately erased the Crimson Tide advantage down to a modest three points at 24-21 with 5:10 left to go.

Remember that aforementioned thought of ELCO coming up with their biggest and most important stand of the season? Well, never did that ring truer than with Columbia’s ensuing drive following the ELCO score. And with their season on the brink, the Raiders’ defense was able to come up with a perfectly-timed three and out, giving the ball back to the ELCO offense near the midfield stripe following the Columbia punt.

Ironically, even though ELCO still found themselves having to navigate half the field all while lugging around a three-point deficit, it seemed that the Raiders had been able to impose their will on their previous possession, making an upcoming Raider touchdown feel all but a certain. With that in mind, a 12-yard burst up the gut by Braden Bohannon on the first play of the drive ushered the ELCO attack all the way down to the Columbia 33-yard line. From there, the Raiders’ offensive line and backfield continued to feast as powerful run up the heart of the Crimson Tide defense courtesy of sophomore running back Luke Williams moved the ELCO attack down inside the Columbia redzone to the 14-yard line. And with the Raiders facing a 3rd & 10 at the 14-yard line, guess who, Braden Bohannon, dashed his way up in the middle untouched for the ELCO touchdown run, creating a deafening roar from the ELCO bleachers as their Raiders had gone back in front by four at 28-24 following the PAT with just 1:32 left to go.

But as was to be expected, getting out of dodge likely would be anything but easy for ELCO the rest of the way home. In fact, those same fans who had been roaring following the Bohannon touchdown scamper just moments earlier likely were seen biting their fingernails immediately afterwards considering a long kickoff return mustered by Columbia freshman Steven Rivas and additional personal foul dinged against ELCO on top of everything, putting the ball at the Raiders’ 44-yard line heading into the final minute.

As mentioned, Columbia’s propensity to pick up countless long third and fourth down conversions all night long had been a prevailing theme throughout the entirety of the contest. So, with the Tide facing a 3rd & 16 attempt at the ELCO 48-yard line, a 15-yard toss from McCleary to Michael Poole set up a 4th & 1 attempt which McCleary was able to pick up via the sneak, giving the Tide a fresh set of downs with the ball now resting at the ELCO 34-yard line. But in an ironic and totally fitting twist of fate, the Crimson Tide’s aspirations of heading home with a victory and eagerly refreshing the District 3 website on a minute-by-minute basis to await their own postseason fate would not be needed as ELCO’s man of the hour, Braden Bohannon, was able to snare an errant Columbia pass for the game-saving interception in the endzone from his safety spot, capping off what had been a wildly entertaining and memorable high school football game, with the Raiders going to prevail in a 28-24 final decision over a very game Columbia group.

“Thanking God,” an understandably fired up ELCO head coach Rob Miller said after ditching his game-worn gray hoodie in favor of a t-shirt despite the chilly conditions just moments following his team’s dramatic triumph. “For real. Faith has been a big part of our season. To have faith in each another at a time like that at halftime where things aren’t going so well. We come out in the third quarter, things weren’t going so well. They just pulled together,” Miller added proudly of his playoff-bound squad.

“It’s interesting because the kids pick up their intensity as the game is going on and going on. There’s no falter. No blaming. Kids are getting penalties, no one yells at them. They’re all patting each other on the back. It’s unbelievable the faith they have in each other in a game like that because that’s tight for high school kids.”

In many ways, Friday night helped serve as a microcosm for ELCO’s season entire season considering that the Raiders needed to dig themselves out from underneath a hole, whether it be an 0-3 start, or a 24-13 deficit with 9:44 left in their season. To be sure, it was an achievement not lost on the Raiders’ head man.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Miller said echoing that sentiment. “These kids stand up. It challenges them. What we said at practice yesterday was, ‘Where do you want to be on Monday? Turning in your equipment, or coming back here and enjoying each other?’ We talked about why. We wanted to come back because we love each other. They truly love each other. To face adversity like that, you better love each other. You better really mean it if you want to come back and boy did they rise up to the occasion and make it happen.”

NEXT UP: With their bid to the playoffs all but an official formality at this point, ELCO will now set their sights on an opponent to be determined next weekend, with some early projections showing the Raiders loading up the buses and making the short trek up to Hershey to tangle with the Milton Hershey Spartans. But perhaps no better line was uttered all night long regarding a team’s playoffs chances than when Coach Miller said, “No, we’re definitely going back. I’m calling it. If we don’t, then we just ended on one hell of a game.”

For Columbia, the Crimson Tide’s season now concludes following their hard-fought game against ELCO. And while the Tide will be left out of the postseason scene yet again this season, the strides that this year’s group has made will leave a lasting impact for years to come on the Columbia high school football program. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that the Tide were forced to literally end games before the scoreboard clock read zeroes due to a lack of bodies. They say that winning cures all. But if nothing else, the winning and high-flying offense generated by this year’s Columbia squad will almost certainly be the catalyst which inspires and attracts future youngsters to join the Crimson Tide football program. And when you get right down to it, that’s not such a bad legacy to leave behind.

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