Cocalico Shrugs Off York To Clinch Berth In District 3-5A Championship Game
It seems to happen so routinely that you can almost set your watch to it. Yes, without fail, each and every season consistently brings with it those inspiring tales of extra special individuals and teams that take shape and become transcendent above all others. When talking about the state of the union as it relates to PIAA District 3 football this season, perhaps there is no better example of that than the York High Bearcats and their senior running back, Dayjure Stewart.
Coming into the Bearcats’ Saturday afternoon District 3-5A semifinal battle royal against Cocalico, the numbers posted thus far by Stewart and his fellow Bearcats have been in a word, startling. When all was said and done following an incredible stretch of regular season of play, the Bearcats were able to rattle off an impressive 9-1 record, with their lone blemish coming by one measly point at the midyear point against county rival Red Lion, one of the tradition-rich powers that hails from York County. And in their wins, York has appeared to more than like a pinball machine than that of a football squad.
63, 55, 71, 55, 68, and 54. While those numbers read off in succession may seem like a state trooper’s radar gun while hanging out alongside an interstate, the fact of the matter is that those are just some of the final point totals that York has been able to hang on their opposition this season. And the one doing the bulk of the damage this season helping contribute to those numbers? None other than Mr. Stewart.
Getting to 1,000 rushing yards in one year is remarkable. Reaching 2,000 yards in a season is incredible. So, what kind of adjective do you use for someone on the brink of the 3,000 yard plateau? While others may have been trying to consult a thesaurus, that still remained the topic de jour for Dayjure and his teammates prior to boarding the buses Saturday afternoon and traveling eastward as Stewart’s rushing total this season stood at a jaw-dropping total of 2,919 yards. Just two weeks ago, in the Bearcats’ opening game of the postseason against Northern York, Stewart was able thaw out and torch the Polar Bears by galloping for a single game District 3 playoff record 463 yards rushing on that rain-soaked night inside the White Rose City.
But as is expected and customary during a postseason run, the obstacles and challenges only increase in size and stature with each passing step along the journey. And perhaps no challenge seemed more apropos than a road trip to Lancaster County to tangle with Cocalico.
Aside from the fact that you’d be hard-pressed to find a program that seems to relish and thrive in their role of being the underdog, both within their division of Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 2 and District 3 at large better than Cocalico, Saturday’s contest would pose a new challenge to the Bearcats — Playing on natural grass for the first time this season just two days after a nasty dumping of heavy, saturated snow around the mid-state that left fields unplayable Friday night.
That is of course until a late Friday afternoon change of plans also resulted in a change of venue which meant that York and Cocalico would now do battle at Manheim’s Elden Rettew Stadium on Saturday — A field turf facility. However, even despite what surface the game would ultimately be played on, York clearly had their work cut out for them when trying to navigate past the Eagles.
For as many headlines are written about Cocalico’s Veer system, and rightly so based upon the numbers the Eagles have made a habit of churning out seemingly every single week, the Eagles’ defense this season, particularly late in the season, should not exactly be one to play second-fiddle. Just in the last three weeks alone, two of which included the unenviable task of going against Solanco, Cocalico was able to keep the Golden Mules’ high-powered option offense under wraps to the tune of just 7 overall points for the Golden Mules in 96 minutes of action. The same Solanco offense mind you that was averaging 35 points on a nightly basis outside of their two games against Cocalico this season.
Needless to say, the stage had been set. With the ever-present theme of “Irresistible Force vs Immovable Object” hanging in the air under the benevolent sky in Manheim, the time had finally come for York and Cocalico to wage what promised to be an unforgettable war with a winner earning the right to advance on to next week’s District title game.
York would end up getting the ball first and didn’t waste much time in showing off the weapons housed inside their expansive offensive arsenal. Aided by a key 3rd & 8 conversion on the ‘Cats opening drive that was picked up on a second-effort run by Dayjure Stewart, York High suddenly found themselves near the midfield stripe with the first quarter still well in it’s infancy. From there, the Bearcats went away from their dominating run game by going to the air which proved to be a wise decision as senior quarterback Seth Bernstein was able to connect with fellow senior receiver Rob Rideout, found streaking behind the Eagles’ secondary, as the 49-yard touchdown bomb gave York the ultimate opening statement as the ‘Cats drew first blood at 7-0 with just 1:15 having expired off the first quarter clock.
However, even despite the ultra-quick upper cut landed by York, Cocalico, as they have been able to do so many times already this season, remained unphased.
On the ensuing kickoff, York tried to catch Cocalico napping during film study with an onsides kick which was to no avail as the Eagles’ offense went to work with a short field in front of them at their own 46-yard line following the alert recovery. And just like their counterparts had already been able to demonstrate on their initial offensive drive of the game, Cocalico was equally up to the challenge of striking fast as a marvelous option keeper by junior quarterback Noah Palm was ultimately pitched to fellow backfield mate Ronald Zahm well down the field before Zahm was eventually tripped up by the oncoming Bearcat pursuit at the York 9-yard line, concluding a perfect illustration of just how dangerous the Cocalico rushing attack can be. From there, Palm decided to keep it himself in order to conclude the Eagles’ opening march as his 1-yard QB sneak made it a 7-7 affair following the Danny Engle PAT with 9:42 still left to play in the opening quarter.
From that point on, the offensive volleys thrown back and forth came seemed nonstop for the duration of the afternoon.
Faced with their true test of adversity of the day which took the form of a 4th& 3 attempt at their own 47-yard line on the ensuing drive, York decided to call timeout and take a moment to mull over the positives and negatives of such a critical decision so early in the contest. Coming out of the timeout, York decided to line up and punt the ball away. Or so that’s what it had appeared Cocalico thought as well as Dayjure Stewart went back into punt formation before promptly taking off and running around the right side to give the Bearcats a sorely-needed fresh set of downs for the fourth down conversion.
Later on in the drive, yet another third down attempt arose for the Bearcats. Only this time, York need not think about a fourth down conversion play following suit as Seth Bernstein was able to connect with Tobee Stokes as the completion to the Bearcats’ junior wideout would move the sticks once again for York with the ‘Cats now poised and ready to strike once again at the Eagles’ 34-yard line. And that is precisely what they were able to do just a few plays later on in the drive as Bernstein was able to hook up with his favorite target, Rob Rideout, as the prolific duo was once again good for points as York went back on top 14-7 with 3:33 left in the first.
After the ensuing kickoff which again saw Cocalico go right back to work at their own 40-yard line following the return, the Eagles went right back to buttering their bread the way they know best — By pounding the ball directly at the opposition. Sure enough, the dam was able to burst once more as a long Cocalico run with a personal foul added on top, quickly ushered the Eagles down to the outer fringe of the York High redzone. And when you consistently pound the rock time after time, the pass game suddenly begins to open up.
Right then and there, that is precisely the card that the Eagles decided to play as Noah Palm’s first pass attempt of the ball game went off without a hitch with Palm being able to hit senior running back Austin Landers in stride, as the 34-yard TD pitch and catch knotted things back up at 14-14 with just 26 seconds left to expire after an eventful opening first quarter of action.
Once the second stanza got underway, it quickly became apparent that the offensive fireworks that had been shot off during the opening period were certainly not limited to the opening twelve minutes alone.
Ironically enough however, York’s third offensive series of the afternoon would not end in the endzone as its previous two predecessors had been able to do, as a 3rd& 17 attempt went begging with the white-hot Cocalico offense returning to the field with a chance to take their first lead of the afternoon.
And right on cue, the Eagles were able to do just that as a 34-yard keeper by way of option-wizard turned quarterback, Noah Palm, gave Cocalico the upper-hand for the first time all day with the Eagles going in front 21-14 following the Engle PAT boot with 7:02 to play in the opening half.
While the latest Eagles’ score may have originally seemed harmless considering the back and forth nature of the contest that was quickly taking shape, the fact of the matter remained that giving up a lead to a run-heavy team such as Cocalico could prove to be dangerous. Fortunately, for those that had made the trek across the Susquehanna River into Lancaster County, their beloved Bearcats would rise up once again and author a response to match Cocalico just in time as a 9-yard jaunt to the house by Bearcat QB Seth Bernstein would give York the critical 21-21 deadlock heading into the halftime break considering there was a mere 54 seconds left to go in the first half.
In the playoffs however, one must always prepare for the unexpected.
With the Eagles mounting what appeared to be a promising last-minute drive just before the intermission, the choice seemed logical. Pound away some more at the physical York defensive line in hopes of possibly popping one that could result in points. If that doesn’t work, then simply line up and lean on your All-State soccer player who just so happens to moonlight as your placekicker in order to go into the break with a little momentum and a bite-sized lead.
Instead, Cocalico decided to roll the dice and throw caution to the wind by going deep in the playbook to an end-around pass with sophomore backup QB Carson Nash having the honors as Nash was able to locate a wide open Ben Sola in his own area code behind the Bearcats’ secondary as the last-minute haymaker landed by Cocalico sent the Eagles across the street and into the halftime dressing room riding a mammoth wave of momentum, leading York 28-21 with the Eagles set to return the second half kickoff.
And if ever there was any doubt or hesitation as to whether momentum in sports is a small or trivial piece of the equation, one only need to look at Cocalico’s opening drive to begin the third quarter to shoot that notion to smithereens.
After a nice 20-yard kickoff return which got the Eagles out to their own 40-yard line to begin the drive, the Cocalico offensive line began to work its magic. Aided by the big holes generated by the big men up front, senior running back Garrett Longenecker was able to punch through the line with a pair of back-to-back punishing runs which got the Eagles all the way down to the York 21-yard line. From there, Cody Shay was able to do the honors as the junior running back’s 21-yard TD gallop made it a two touchdown advantage for Cocalico with the Eagles holding serve by virtue of the 35-21 lead with just one minute having expired off the third quarter clock.
As mentioned, a one touchdown lead for an outfit such as Cocalico can be hazardous to the opposition. Up that to a two score cushion, with the game in the second half now in the second half no less, and the chances for overcoming such an obstacle grow so much more precarious.
It certainly doesn’t help matter when you are faced with a 2nd& 50 call as was the case for York on their ensuing offensive possession. Yet even despite that, the Bearcats would fight valiantly over the course of the next few plays, ultimately coming up just one yard shy of the yard to gain following a 4th& 10 attempt, giving the ball back to Cocalico at their own 39-yard line.
From the very first snap of their ensuing drive, it was clear that the Eagles were emphatically exerting their will and that the Cocalico snowball was plummeting downhill at a rapid pace that seemed darn near impossible to stop. On the aforementioned opening play of the series, Garrett Longenecker was able to burst through the York High defense with an inspiring run which quickly got Cocalico down to the York 38-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Eagles’ QB Noah Palm was able to dart his way into the endzone with the 29-yard house call that allowed Cocalico to double-up York with the Eagles now owning the 42-21 advantage with 5:52 left in the third.
With the blood now clearly visible in the water, it was time for the sharks, or rather the Eagles, to pounce and put this one away once and for all. Yet even though York would be able to cross the midfield stripe on their next offensive series following the Palm TD run, the Cocalico defense would quickly put a stop to things as the Bearcats’ 4th& 5 attempt was swallowed up and engulfed by the Eagles’ defensive troops, thwarting a possible York rebuttal.
So, with the added jolt of momentum now in their back pocket following a successful defensive stand, an instantaneous Cocalico punch appeared all but a certain. Just how quick seemed to be the only real question left to be answered.
It wouldn’t very long to find that elusive answer. In fact, it would take all of one play to be exact as a 56-yard Garrett Longenecker TD scamper made it a 49-21 ballgame in Cocalico’s favor with 1:46 to go in the third.
Yet even though it had seemed like the damage had already been done, the Cocalico defense wasn’t about to quit hunting.
On their next defensive series, the Eagles were once again able to turn away the highly-potent York High offense by way of an interception which was snagged by patrolman Ronald Zahm, found lurking in the Cocalico secondary, as the junior DB’s takeaway allowed the Eagles to go back on offensive on their side of the field at the Bearcats’ 48-yard line following the run back.
And like the finely-tuned machine that they were now taking the form of, Cocalico began to ground and pound their way down the field following the Zahm INT with Zahm fittingly putting a bow on the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run which upped the Cocalico lead to 55-21 with just 8:16 to play as the PAT was blocked.
Yet even despite the gargantuan hole in which York currently found themselves in, the Bearcats would continue to scrap and claw down the stretch in a way which perfectly describes their moniker as a Seth Bernstein TD toss, his third of the afternoon, was good from 25 yards out to Dayjure Stewart as York was able to make an incision into the Cocalico lead at 55-28 with 5:29 left to go.
And just as the game had begun, the last two drives of the contest would also end in a barrage of points between the two combatants as a 48-yard Noah Palm TD stroll concluded the scoring for Cocalico, while a 53-yard toss from Tobee Stokes to Dayjure Stewart would ultimately close things out for York as Cocalico had earned the right to advance to next week’s District 3-5A title game at a site and time yet to be determined by virtue of their 61-35 triumph.
While getting to the District 3 championship game would be an achievement that could easily stand on its own merit in any year, the journey taken by Cocalico, particularly in the days and hours preceding their semifinal contest on Saturday afternoon, might make this one feel all the more special.
“The last three weeks have been tough,” Cocalico head coach Dave Gingrich admitted in the postgame. “You have a bye (in the first round of playoffs) which is just different that changes things up, but our kids did well with that. Then you come back and it’s like are you going to play Friday or Saturday?” Gingrich said rehashing last weekend’s circumstances and a deluge of heavy rain that forced numerous postponements. “We ended up playing Saturday (against Solanco) which was totally different. We reacted very well to that. So then you go with this week and I knew the weather was going to be bad.”
And up until the end, no one truly knew where and when the Cocalico/York semifinal would be held.
“Our maintenance crew did everything they could possibly could yesterday. They were working on it until 4 o’clock yesterday,” Coach Gingrich said lauding the efforts of the Cocalico personnel that were tasked with the chore of making the natural grass surface playable. “I just didn’t feel that for both teams it was a safe field at that point in time to play and District 3 wanted a decision.”
So, that meant a change of plans over to a locale that the Cocalico fanbase is all too familiar with by venturing over to the campus of Manheim Central. However, the battle lines that define one of the fiercest rivalries in the entire Lancaster-Lebanon League were ultimately lowered, albeit for just an afternoon, in order to come to the aide of a fellow league member who needed a place to play.
“Thank goodness for Manheim. They’ve been so gracious,” Coach Gingrich went on to say. “We beat the tar out of each other when we play each other, but they were wonderful. They put us in our same locker room and really took care of us. I really appreciate that.”
With venue now determined, the task on the field still remained in having to stop Dayjure Stewart and the explosive York High offense as a whole. And while it is understandably hard and arguably impossible to simulate a hard-charging Dayjure Stewart in the open field in the days of practice leading up to the game, Coach Gingrich and his men knew that Saturday afternoon was going to be a game won between the ears as much as on the field.
“You have to watch the film. You have to watch their tendencies. And a lot of it, you just do on walk-thru,” the Eagles’ boss said. “You really have to make sure that they (his players) understand their leverages…Our linebackers had to understand what gap they were responsible for. Our defensive line had to make sure they were responsible for that. I thought we did a pretty good job on them.”
NEXT UP: With their ticket to the title bout now punched, Cocalico will get ready in earnest for a week of practice that will be centered around the Thanksgiving holiday as the Eagles get ready for arch-rival Manheim Central.
Yet win or lose next weekend, it’s evident that this 2018 edition of Cocalico football has already made a lasting impact on Eagle coach Dave Gingrich.
“It takes a lot to make me speechless, but I am speechless with what this team has done. This team, losing everything that we did a year ago, playing the schedule we had, going with one scrimmage, I mean there was so many things working against this team, except chemistry,” Gingrich stated. “Everyone has a role and everyone has value. I think that’s the one thing that this team has done better than a lot of teams that we’ve had in the past. Everyone feels that they are a part of this team.”
But getting to a championship is a total team effort — Coaches included. And it’s altogether a concoction that Coach Gingrich knows goes into what makes Cocalico, Cocalico.
“I’m so proud of the kids and the coaches,” Gingrich added. “Our assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job of bringing this team along and the kids have done a phenomenal job of just getting better. They believed in themselves even after we lost two games….In some programs they quit, they just get disenchanted. We didn’t. We just improved.”
For York, this year’s incredible ride unfortunately had to come to an untimely end late Saturday afternoon in the district playoff semifinal round. But make no mistake about it, this was a Bearcat team that will long be remembered for helping change the narrative for York High football.
For years, the Bearcats had fallen on hard times, beset by numerous losing seasons. This season however, things were different. And while 2018 saw the emergence of transcendent talent such as Dayjure Stewart, Rob Rideout, Tino Conquest, and Seth Bernstein just to name a few, all of which York will have to replace in 2019, the concrete mold for the foundation has clearly been laid and is settling in nicely for the York High Bearcats to emerge as one of York County’s premier football brands on a consistent yearly basis starting in the immediate future.
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