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Explosive Plays Help Penn Hills Achieve Immortality As Indians Hold Off Manheim Central To Claim PIAA-5A Crown

Written by: on Saturday, December 8th, 2018. Follow Andy Herr on Twitter.


It’s funny how things sometimes have a way of perfectly coming together full circle isn’t it?

Take a moment right now and reflect back to a not-too-distant, much warmer time earlier this year. Say August 6thfor example? You see, back on that very day amidst the sweltering early August heat, every scholastic football team from all across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially came together to start their mandated “heat acclimatization” period, thus officially kicking off the start of the 2018 high school football season. And while each team from Lake Erie all the way down to the Delaware River and everywhere in between would gather around one another to discuss their goals and aspirations for the season ahead, only the best of the best, an elite 12 if you will, would have the distinct privilege of playing the game over the duration of the next five months, with everything coming to a head at Hersheypark Stadium for the PIAA Championships on the second weekend of December.

Now sure, some of these goals that are written on whiteboards and spoken out loud within the intimacy of the team huddle may sometimes seem farfetched, especially for some squads that dream about the opportunity of playing for state gold. However, as the combatants set to do battle in Friday night’s 5A title tilt had consistently displayed throughout the dog-days of summer, the entirety of the fall, and now the early portion of winter, the vision of playing in Hershey was in fact a very real and tangible reality dating all the way back to preseason camp.

When speaking of Pennsylvania high school football “royalty”, there are always a certain few programs that consistently jump to the front of everyone’s collective memory. One such program that fits the description— Manheim Central.

After all, the numbers are simply too hard to ignore.

25 Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 titles (An L-L League record)

18 District 3 titles (A District 3 record)

58 District 3 playoff victories (A District 3 record)

22 District 3 championship game appearances (A District 3 record)

4 PIAA championship game appearances

1 state title

However, even despite such an impressive resume as the one boasted by the Barons, history alone does not a team define. And with that in mind, the Barons have gone on to put together one of the most special seasons in their storied history.

Coming into the year with everyone in the mid-state placing the bullseye upon the backs of the Barons, Manheim Central has largely seemed undaunted by the outside noise and expectations by quite frankly steamrolling their competition en route to a perfect 14-0 record heading into the biggest game of the season.  Included within that stretch was a simply dominating display of football that bore witness to the Barons outscoring their fellow Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 foes by a combined total of 302-51 before seeing the Barons go on to claim the L-L Section 2 crown and back-to-back District 3 titles in the process.

But their competition standing on the other sideline Friday night had no interest whatsoever in hearing about the Baron mystique of old. No, they had arrived in Hershey with one goal in mind —-Bring that gold trophy back home to Pittsburgh.

The WPIAL. It’s an abbreviation that seems so simple in the sense that it measures just five letters long, but packs arguably the hardest punch when talking about Pennsylvania high school football. Make no mistake about it, if you come out of the WPIAL regardless of your classification from 1A to 6A, there isn’t much that the state can throw at you the rest of the way that will be much more difficult than the course you have just navigated. But with all that being said, when you up the ante to emerging from the WPIAL with an unblemished record, yeah, that’s a whole different level of special.

For Penn Hills, 2018 has indeed been special. Entering Friday night’s blockbuster affair with a perfect 15-0 record to their name, the Indians have successfully looked the part of arguably the best team in the entire state, regardless of classification level. To be sure, Penn Hills has looked like a total package thus far during the campaign by effectively dismantling nearly everyone who has come across their path this season. To be more precise, the Indians have eclipsed the 30-point threshold in nine of their games in 2018, highlighted by a 64 point effort against Kiski back on September 21st.

And while the Penn Hills offense may steal the show, and perhaps rightly so given the pinball-like numbers that the Indians have been known to put up, the defense from Penn Hills has looked equal parts nasty this season.

There are always a few certain things that can used to quantify a great defense, but perhaps none better serving than in the form of point totals. So just chew on this nugget real briefly. Through 15 consecutive weeks of action, the Indians have held opponents under 10 points in seven of those contests, including a grand total of three shutout victories. But perhaps most impressive? The fact that a Penn Hills opponent has not scored more than 20 points since the final weekend of September.

To be sure, Penn Hills has been one of the more intriguing storylines to follow coming out of the western side of the state over the course of the last few months with the Indians winning their first WPIAL title in 23 years. And hey, they also just so happen to be undefeated in the state of Ohio as well considering the Indians were able to knock off Steubenville 21-14 in Week 1, effectively kick-starting their season. A season which took the Indians back to their first state title game since 1995.

So, with the stage ready and primed for what promised to be an unforgettable state final between two incredible squads bringing combined records of 29-0 to the table, either Penn Hills or Manheim Central would have to soon make room in the trophy case for a second piece of hardware by the end of the night — A trophy that would be given out on the bitter cold night of December 7th which would appropriately serve as the perfect punctuation mark to a journey that began under the blazing hot sun of August 6th.

In big games, such as the one taking place on Friday, turnovers are usually critically in helping determine the eventual outcome of the contest. In that regard, score one for Manheim Central early on.

After having their initial drive of the contest be halted after a turnover on downs the Penn Hills’ 5-yard line, the Barons turned the keys over to their trusty defense to help get them out jail. And right on cue, Manheim Central’s Will Rivers was able to help swing the early momentum back in the Barons’ favor with a timely interception which allowed the Manheim Central offense to return to the field, already inside the Indians’ redzone at the Penn Hills 16-yard line.

From there, the Barons would be able to make good on their early golden opportunity with a 5-yard Tyler Flick touchdown run which saw the Barons draw first blood at 7-0 following the Niko Gavala PAT with 6:01 left to play in the first quarter.

But as expected, Penn Hills was not a squad that would back away from the task at hand. And with that in mind, the Indians proceeded to start off on a drive in order the match the early Manheim Central haymaker.

Aided by a pair of key third down conversions earlier in the drive, Penn Hills had suddenly marched into Manheim Central territory, with the ball now resting at the Barons’ 27-yard line. However, the Indians made the task a little more difficult than necessary on themselves after being whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct call which set the Indians’ plans back 15 yards.

Yet just when it had seemed like Manheim Central may be able to garner a little bit of momentum, the dynamic playmakers from Penn Hills suddenly stepped to the forefront with differing views. Never more was that on display for all to see than with Penn Hills’ dynamic senior quarterback Hollis Mathis eluding pressure to find fellow senior wideout Dante Cephas behind the Barons’ secondary for the sweet game of pitch and catch, as the Indians suddenly found themselves at the Manheim Central 6-yard line. From there, Penn Hills would be able to punch it in with a 6-yard TD toss from Mathis to Indians’ senior wideout Corey Thomas which trimmed the Barons’ lead to 7-6 with 2:07 left in the opening stanza after the 2pt conversion was no good.

But just when it had seemed like Penn Hills might have been able to steal away some of the momentum following the Mathis to Thomas touchdown connection, the Barons immediately went on the attack. In fact, it wouldn’t take Manheim Central very long to find themselves down as far as the Indians’ 13-yard line on the ensuing series.

However, that also just so happened to be when the pesky turnover bug decided to rise up bite the Barons.

With Manheim Central marching towards what felt like an inevitable answer to make amends for the most recent Penn Hills score, the man of the hour, Penn Hills’ senior defensive back/wideout Daequan Hardy, decided to make the first of his many highlight-reel plays on the grandest of stages by jumping a route and coming away with a timely interception to thwart the Manheim Central charge, albeit with the Indians now taking back over at their own 6-yard line.

Fortunately, for those who had made the short trip up PA Route 72 to support the Barons, the possible early disaster that could have taken place following a turnover in the redzone was ultimately avoided thanks to the Manheim Central defense rising up and forcing a Penn Hills punt.

However, disaster would strike shortly thereafter as the ensuing Manheim Central drive would also end in a turnover down inside the Penn Hills redzone yet again with Indians’ junior defensive back Anthony Grimes reading his keys and snaring an interception for the timely takeaway, thus concluding yet another Barons’ drive that ended on the doorstep with nothing to show for it.

Only this time, the Indians would make the Barons pay dearly for their mistake as Hollis Mathis lobbed a 74-yard bomb into the night sky to a waiting Daequan Hardy, left all alone with no one within 20 yards of him, as Hardy proceeded to stroll to the house to cap off the Penn Hills’ 1-play uppercut-like drive with the Indians adding to their lead at 12-7 with 3:51 left in the half after the 2pt try proved unsuccessful.

But Hardy wasn’t done there. Not by a long shot.

With the Barons mounting yet another promising drive, down to the Penn Hills 4-yard line to be exact, Daequan Hardy promptly stepped to center stage and showed why he is one of the best football players in the entire state of Pennsylvania by jumping in front of yet another Manheim Central pass, stealing this one away as well and running back to the house for the 100-yard pick 6, a new PIAA state title game record, to put the Indians up 18-7 with only 14 seconds left to expire off the first half clock for the gigantic turn of events just before the intermission.

Coming out of the break, the highly-powered Penn Hills offense showed no signs of slowing down. Ignited by a beautiful 27-yard rifle shot across the middle, Dante Cephas proved fearless as the 6’1 senior receiver went up in traffic and came down with it, moving the Indians’ attack to the Manheim Central 45-yard line. Ironically enough, 27 yards proved to be the magic number once again later on in the drive with Penn Hills facing a 3rd& 7 at the Barons’ 27-yard line. On said play, Hollis Mathias stood back fearlessly in the pocket before lobbing one up to you guessed it, Daequan Hardy, with Hardy delivering for Penn Hills once again for the TD reception as the Indians’ lead quickly swelled to 24-7 following the unsuccessful 2pt try with 9:18 still left to go in the third frame.

Sensing a theme here with a player who’s name seems to keep rising to the surface?

Sure enough, Daequan Hardy would prove to be a name etched into the memory of Manheim Central fans for all eternity as Hardy would pick off yet another errant Manheim Central pass on the Barons’ ensuing possession, returning this one all the way back to the Manheim Central 35-yard line.

From there, it would take Penn Hills all of seven seconds to find the endzone as senior running back Tank Smith rumbled 35-yards up the gut untouched to add the Indians’ lead, making it a 30-7 affair with Penn Hills out in front with 7:48 left to play in the third quarter.

Needing to answer with time of the upmost importance, the Barons quickly went back to work and ultimately found the results to be fruitful as a 15-yard Tyler Flick scamper into the endzone quickly whittled the Penn Hills’ advantage down to 30-14 with 5:58 left in the third for the timely Manheim Central response.

The only problem with that? Daequan Hardy is on the kickoff return unit for Penn Hills.

That’s right. On the ensuing kickoff, Hardy scooped up the bounding ball along the Hersheypark Stadium turf before making one cut and heading off to the races, promptly swinging the pendulum of momentum back over to the Penn Hills’ sideline, as the 84-yard Hardy kickoff return made it a 36-14 Penn Hills advantage with 5:45 left to play in the third.

But that wouldn’t be the last of the third quarter fireworks.

In fact, it would take Manheim Central just one play to come up with an answer of their own as a 64-yard Evan Simon TD bomb to a streaking Colby Wagner along the Barons’ sideline would cut the Penn Hills lead back down to 36-20 with 5:32 left in the third following the unsuccessful 2pt try for the Barons.

Once the fourth quarter got underway, the tone and general overall vibe contained with the cavernous confines of Hersheypark Stadium felt like momentum was starting to go back on the side of the Barons. And never more was that evident than with Manheim Central facing 3rd& 11 at the Penn Hills 40-yard line before Evan Simon decided to take off and scamper down to the Indians’ 9-yard line for a clutch 20-yard burst to keep the Barons’ drive alive. Ultimately however, the Indians’ stingy defense would rise to the challenge once again with Penn Hills holding Manheim Central out of the endzone, having things culminate with a 27-yard Niko Gavala field goal which saw the Barons slice into the Penn Hills lead at 36-23 with 9:36 left to go.

If ever Manheim Central needed to make a stop a defense, the time was now. And while the Barons would eventually get their stop which came thanks to a fantastic effort by sensational senior linebacker Landan Moyer who would stuff the Penn Hills 4th& Goal attempt inside the Barons’ 5-yard line, the damage had already been done earlier in the drive as the Barons were whistled for two costly fouls on third downs in the form of a personal foul and a defensive pass interference call after that which allowed Penn Hills to effectively salt away precious game time.

So, with time of the essence following the Penn Hills turnover on downs, Manheim Central went back on offense at their own 10-yard line with just 3:02 left to go. However, the conclusion of this drive came with a good news/bad news scenario for the Barons. The good news? Manheim Central would indeed find the endzone after an 18-yard dart across the middle from Evan Simon to Isaac Perron for the Central touchdown, trimming the Indians’ lead down to a workable five point deficit at 36-31 following the 2pt conversion. The bad news? Only three seconds were left showing on the scoreboard clock after all was said and done.

And after the ensuing onsides kick was promptly pounced on the Penn Hills’ hands team, the Indians had successful made good on their quest to Hershey, putting the exclamation mark on their perfect 16-0 run to PIAA 5A title game by knocking off Manheim Central, 36-31.

By now, chances are that you’ve heard the old adage that big time players step up in big time games. And while Daequan Hardy perfectly fit that description on Friday night for Penn Hills, this one was a little different. Truth be told, Hardy authored what could possibly go down as the best performance anyone has ever witnessed in a PIAA state final with three interceptions from his defensive back spot, one of which went back to the house for 100-yards, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and two more touchdowns added on top for what proved to be a transcendent performance authored by Mr. Hardy. And it was something not lost on his head coach afterwards either.

“It should be up there with one of the best performances in state history,” Penn Hills head coach Jon LeDonne said succinctly following the game on Friday night. Perhaps the only performance that ranks better? Well, it might be one that LeDonne has seen before.

“Darrelle Revis had what, four or five touchdowns in the state championship game?” LeDonne questioned out loud referring Revis’ five touchdown performance for Aliquippa in 2003. “I favor Revis being an Aliquippa guy,” LeDonne said with a smirk before adding, “Daequan Hardy is a just the complete package…A very special kid who is Revis-like. We wish him all the best of luck at next level.”

“I’m just so proud,” LeDonne added regarding the culmination of this team’s overall journey. “When we got together in January, we set this goal. We talked about doing that one day at a time and one week a time. I’m just really excited for my guys right now.”

On the other side, for Manheim Central, although it did not end the way in which they wanted, Friday night’s defeat should in no way take the shine away from what will go down as one of the best seasons in the Barons’ illustrious history. And within a school and community the likes of Manheim Central, that’s saying a mouthful.

All year long, the Barons’ rallying cry has been “One Town. One Team. One Dream.” It’s a simple mantra yes, but it’s innocence makes it all the more pure. You see, Manheim is a town that lives and breathes for the spectacle of high school football. Instead of kids playing football in the backyard pretending to college of NFL stars, they instead try and emulate their heroes who play down the street on Friday night in front of the entire community, trying to perhaps replicate an imaginary late two-minute drill that always ends in Manheim Central coming away with a last-second touchdown to win the Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 title or something of the like. But perhaps the most important thing that came out of this season besides the glitzy 14-1 overall record and state finals appearance? The fact that the 2018 edition of the Barons surely helped inspire and plant the seed for the up and coming generation of soon-to-be Manheim Central stars who will soon take their rightful place under the bright lights of Elden Rettew Stadium within the next decade or so, thus continuing to maintain the most simple, yet important strand of DNA that defines a successful high school football program. And when you get right down to it, that’s not exactly a bad legacy to leave behind.

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