Cocalico Muscles Past Solanco En Route To District 3-5A Semifinals
Chances are that you’ve probably heard postseason play to be referred to as the “second season.” Or, in layman’s terms, a chance to start anew and wipe the slate clean following a successful regular that was deemed worthy of advancement into the playoffs. In even simpler words, obtaining a second chance with a new lease on life. And while the term is one that is universal and can be shared by all entrants, there are always a specific few for whom the saying can truly be applied to. As it relates to the world of PIAA District 3-5A Football in 2018, perhaps no better team exemplified the mantra better than the Solanco Golden Mules.
Throughout much of the regular season, you’d be hard-pressed to find that was playing much better football than the always-rugged Golden Mules. Yet even while Solanco had endured two painful losses in back-to-back fashion against Conestoga Valley and Elizabethtown respectively around the midway point of the regular season, the Mules had been able to right the ship the following two weeks with a dominating win over McCaskey, before following that up with an equally emphatic win over rival Lampeter-Strasburg their next time out.
But then came a Week 9 trip to Denver to match up with the Cocalico Eagles.
On that night just three short weeks ago, the home-standing Eagles were able to run wild on the Golden Mules’ attack as Cocalico came away with the resounding 42-7 triumph which had a ripple effect across the Lancaster-Lebanon League landscape and District 3 at large. And as fate would have it, the Mules were poised to return to Cocalico for a chance at redemption after dispatching Waynesboro in the opening round of playoffs last week on the road by virtue of their dominating 49-0 triumph over the seventh-seeded Indians.
Interestingly enough, their opponents on this frigid Saturday evening, the Cocalico Eagles, were a squad that was not in action last week. That’s right, thanks to yet another superb regular season under the direction of head coach Dave Gingrich and his supporting staff, Cocalico had earned a first round bye last week in the opening round of the District 3-5A playoffs after rightfully locking up the #2 seed by virtue of an 8-2 regular season – A regular season mind you which saw the Eagles only drop contests to juggernauts Manheim Township and Manheim Central after an incredibly tough ten consecutive weeks through the football gauntlet.
So, the question was still left lingering in the brisk autumn air — Would Cocalico be able to keep the lid on the highly potent Solanco offensive attack much in the same way they were able to do in their last appearance on their home field? Well, it did not take long to discover that the answer to that question would prove to be a resounding yes.
After a successful defensive stand against the equally dangerous Eagle offense on the opening series of the ballgame, the Solanco offense went to work eager to make a splash and author a clear opening argument. Unfortunately for those that had made the trek northward from Quarryville, the stingy Cocalico defense was able to hold the Mules to a three-and-out, forcing the Solanco punting unit to trot onto the field. However, the punt itself would never actually come to fruition due to an errant which sailed high over the punter’s head, setting Cocalico up with fantastic field position with the ball now resting at the Golden Mule 4-yard line following the impromptu change in momentum.
Yet even despite the fantastic opportunity in which the Eagles suddenly found themselves in, the task at hand was far from a sure thing as evidenced by the Solanco defense holding firm and eventually turning away the Eagles on downs. However, the momentum generated by the Mules’ defensive stand did not seem to transfer over to the Solanco offense, leading to another punting situation for the visitors. And while the snap this time around was a success, the blocking in front of it was not as demonstrated by Cocalico senior defensive tackle Josh Hoover who stormed through the Golden Mules’ line and got a paw on it which sent the ball writhing around down on the ground before Eagle junior Brock Gingrich picked up the loose pill and made good on the scoop and score opportunity as the Eagles had suddenly jumped out to the early 7-0 lead courtesy of the 7-yard Gingrich touchdown rumble with 3:32 to go in the first quarter following the Danny Engle PAT.
From there, the Eagles would take off and never look back.
In fact, it would take all of 29 seconds to be more precise for them to strike again. Ignited by a fumble recovery credited to junior linebacker Cody Shay, the Eagles quickly found themselves as the beneficiary of another sudden change scenario with the Cocalico offense immediately returning to the field at the Solanco 29-yard line. As it turned out, that would be all the further the Eagle offensive troops would need to travel in order to help generate points as senior running back Austin Landers promptly bolted in from 29-yards out, completing the 1-play drive, as the Cocalico advantage quickly escalated to 13-0 with 3:13 left in the opening stanza.
As the game eventually progressed into the second quarter, it became apparent that Solanco would need to generate some sort of momentum on their own in order to keep pace as their offense had largely been kept under wraps up until that point in the contest. Right then and there, as if on cue, the pendulum of momentum swung back in the direction of the white-clad Mules as senior defensive back Sam Buckwalter came away with a crucial interception, thwarting another possible Cocalico march down the field, albeit with Solanco now deep in their own territory. However, the Eagle defense would only continue to make life miserable for the Mules’ offense by generating another three-and-out and another punting scenario following the Buckwalter takeaway. And just as he had before, Josh Hoover was able to come darting through the line once again and collect his second punt block of the evening with the only difference this time around being that he himself would reap the benefits by way of the recovery.
It wouldn’t take the Eagles long to find paydirt once again following the Hoover block. Aided by a key 18-yard gallop down by the field by junior quarterback Noah Palm on the first play of the drive which ushered the offensive attack all the way down the Solanco 15-yard line, Palm was able to kick the door in on the very next play as the Cocalico signal-caller’s 15-yard TD dash made it a 19-0 affair with 8:50 to play in the half after the two-point conversion attempt was intercepted.
But just then, right when it seemed like Cocalico would be able to run away and hide, the visitors from the southern end of Lancaster County displayed that they had planned to stick around as a sensational return by Solanco’s Mike Grech on the ensuing kickoff allowed the Golden Mules to work with only half the field left in front of them after taking over with the ball sitting on the midfield stripe. The only issue with that however was the fact that the Cocalico defense would continue to stand in the way. And sure enough, the Eagles would force yet another Solanco punt as Noah Palm diagnosed the Mules’ 3rd& 14 play perfectly, stringing it out for a marginal gain from this defensive back position.
Unlike their previous experiences with punting the football away that had certainly proved to be an adventure, the Mules were able to get off a nice boot this time around, forcing Cocalico to go 81-yards with they had any aspirations of adding another score before the intermission.
And as one can imagine, those aspiration would quickly turn into reality.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing on this drive however. But even when faced with the smallest dose of adversity, the Eagles consistently seemed to remain undeterred. Perhaps the most daunting of said challenges on the series came by way of a 3rd& 13 attempt for Cocalico at their own 15-yard line – A play in which the Eagles were able to pick up thanks to Noah Palm showing off his touch with the long ball by winding up and finding a streaking Seamus Finnegan behind the Solanco secondary with Finnegan hauling in the monstrous 44-yard pitch and catch.
While the celebration would be tempered somewhat with a personal foul call being whistled against Cocalico following the completion, the Eagles were able to maintain and keep their foot to the floorboard shortly thereafter as a 36-yard touchdown run by junior running back Ronald Zahm ballooned the Cocalico lead to 26-0 with 4:51 to play in the first half.
But they weren’t done there.
After holding Solanco to yet another punt on the Golden Mules’ ensuing offensive possession, the Eagles’ offense would make a very brief yet effective return as Noah Palm was able sprint around the left side of the line on the option keeper for the 61-yard touchdown scamper, completing the one-play drive, which made it a 33-0 Cocalico lead with 2:13 left before the break.
And just when it seemed that Cocalico had finally finished scoring in the first half, there was still an additional 24 seconds left to tick off the first half clock which quickly proved to be more than enough time for the hometown Eagles to offer another statement before the halftime respite.
Ignited by two Noah Palms runs which got the Eagles all the way down to the Solanco 12-yard line, Cocalico called upon the efforts of recently named All-State soccer player Danny Engle to finish the first half in style with the Eagles’ senior placekicker being able to deliver in the clutch as Engle’s 30-yard boot through the uprights gave Cocalico the commanding 36-0 advantage at the intermission.
While the damage had largely been done in the first half with the game’s second half being played under the mercy-rule as a result of the events that had preceded it, the final 24 minutes of the contest was not without its fair share of highlights. Among of them, Noah Palm showing off his entire football repertoire prowess by snagging an interception in the third quarter before sophomore Carson Nash taking his turn to get in on the act defensively by recovering a Solanco fumble from his defensive back position later on.
However it wasn’t solely Cocalico gobbling up the takeaways in the second half. No, Solanco was able to turn their hosts over in the final few minutes as well when Golden Mule junior linebacker Danny Bird was able to pounce on a loose football, giving the ball back to the Solanco offense. While that would turn out to be the end of the turnover bug biting both combatants on the evening, it certainly didn’t appear that way in the waning stages as Cocalico sophomore linebacker Daniel Klumpp drifted back into coverage, nearly coming away with an exclamation mark late game interception for the Eagles.
But when all was said and done, there was little doubt left behind on this night as the Cocalico was able to make a dramatic opening statement in the 2018 postseason by effectively handling Solanco, 36-0.
As mentioned, it was not all that long ago that Cocalico and Solanco had seen each other on a football field. And much in the same way that mirrored the game from three weeks ago, the Eagles’ defense would reign supreme once again on Saturday night — A unit that certainly drew the praises of Cocalico head coach Dave Gingrich in the aftermath.
“I think it comes down to Coach (Chris) Laudenslager, our defensive coordinator. He and our other defensive coaches put together a great gameplan. They (the Cocalico defensive staff) do really a nice job of coaching the fundamentals to execute it.”
“The gameplan is great, but if you don’t have the fundamentals and the techniques, that all falls apart,” Gingrich went on to say. “I really think that our techniques and our fundamentals the last two times we’ve played (Solanco) have been pretty good. Last year, they were not…Even though we see this offense, if you don’t have the fundamentals, you suffer.”
So, with a defense clearly in lock-step to duplicate or better their effort against Solanco for a second time this season on Saturday night, the other wildcard at hand was the implementation of a bye week in which Cocalico was subjected to following their Week 10 triumph against Lampeter-Strasburg. But while some teams could easily venture off into left field after coming back following a week on the shelf in the middle of a season, it was apparent that the Eagles were not about to fall victim to that trap.
“I thought we used it in such a way to get better,” said Gingrich. “I think different people have different philosophies. I think our philosophy was that we want to back things down a little bit in terms of time, but we still want to have some intensity while we’re out there.”
“It was nice in terms of preparation. We didn’t have to worry about scouting. We just worked on getting ourselves better.” Look no further than a shutout victory for proof of that.
NEXT UP: After taking down Solanco on Saturday night, Cocalico returns the District 3-5A semifinal round at home in Denver next Friday night when the Eagles welcome the high-flying York High Bearcats and running back Dayjure Stewart who is quickly asserting himself as perhaps the best playmaker in the entire mid-state. But rest assured, it is a matchup that Gingrich and the Eagles are eager and ready to tackle head-on.
“They’re very talented,” the Eagles’ boss said simply when looking ahead to next week. “I’ll be excited to start watching some of their film tomorrow.”
“I think it’s exciting to have this challenge. What’s really exciting is that we’ll be playing them here and we’ll be playing them on grass. They have D-1 talent, but I think our kids will bring a D-1 effort.”
On the other side, Solanco saw its season come to a close with the Mules wrapping up another solid year with a 7-5 record and a playoff berth after making it through the weekly wars of Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 football. And while the Golden Mules will have to replace a bevy of talent that will officially depart come June and graduation, there are few programs around the area that have consistently showed the ability to rise up year after year, even when the cards are sometimes stacked against them. So while it remains to be seen just what the exactly the 2019 edition of Solanco football will end up looking like, assuming you can count them out ahead of time would undoubtedly be a grave and foolish mistake.
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