Donegal Rides Strong Defensive Performance As Indians Travel Northward To Topple Hazleton
Not all road trips are created equal. In some instances, a road game means nothing more than slinging a duffle bag over your shoulder and walking a few blocks to take on your opponent. Let’s just say the Donegal Indians would not be so fortunate on Friday night.
Plug a trip into the GPS leaving Mount Joy with Harman Geist Field in downtown Hazleton as your destination and you’ll see a travel time of 1 hour 40 minutes covering roughly 90 miles….One way.
On the surface, it may be hard to see the connection between these two schools. If anything, the physical distance that separates them is comparable for just far apart they are on the gridiron as well. Sadly for the football romantics however, there is no sort of old flame from the past that ignited these programs to have this unique home and home series the last two seasons. When asked, Donegal head coach Jeff Polites put it bluntly when he said, “Week 7 is a weird time to have a nonleague game. We were looking all over the place and we really couldn’t find anybody else and we’d rather have a game than not.”
In respect to what may seem like a daunting road trip, the Hazleton Cougars were tasked with the very same assignment one year and the visitors from Luzerne County were able to trek home with a 20-14 victory. A feat that Donegal was eager to attempt on their own on a soggy, misty night in downtown Hazleton. It would be no easy task however. In terms of size, Donegal, a 4A program, would have their work cut out for them against the Cougars, one of the few 6A outfits that reside in District 2.
Coming into this weekend, both teams were at opposite spectrums of the roller coaster ride that is a high school football season. For Donegal, a rough start to the season marred by a 0-3 start out of the gates, albeit against a challenging nonleague slate, seemed to be somewhat washed away with two solid performances which saw them emphatically take care of business against two fellow Section 3 schools by a combined score of 115-8. Needless to say, the Indians were rolling. Unfortunately for the Green and White from Lancaster County, that momentum was put to a halt last Friday as the Indians let a pivotal Section 3 game get away from them, dropping a home contest to Northern Lebanon. Sandwiched in between the stretch run of their season was Friday’s date with Hazleton.
Hazleton on the other hand was enjoying the best part of their season to date. Winners of 3 of their last 4, including last week’s drubbing over Scranton, the Cougars were eyeing a date with postseason play with a strong finish in mind.
As mentioned, Friday night’s contest would serve as the last meeting in this two game series between the Cougars and Indians with Hazleton coming away with the 20-14 victory in last year’s meeting. As fate would have it, Donegal would be able to reverse the fortune this year. Score and all.
If there was a narrative that could be used to describe the first half of Friday night’s action, it was field position. After both teams traded 3 & outs to start the game, Hazleton was on the move on their second series. Following a Donegal punt that gave them a short field to work with, the Cougars would try and solve the Indian defense with just 26 yards in front of them. Junior running back Damon Horton got the drive started with a nice one-cut run to get Hazleton down to the Donegal 11 yard line on the first play of the drive. The Cougars would get ever so closer after that when junior quarterback Sparky Wolk found fellow junior Jacob Hunsinger on a quick three step drop to get the Cougars on the doorstep, now at the Indian 3 yard line. The Donegal D was able to stiffen over the next several plays however, refusing to give an inch as evidenced by senior defensive lineman Mason Sauder coming free and collecting the Donegal sack on 3rd & short. Faced with a 4th down, Hazleton decided to roll the dice wanting to make a statement early on. Luckily for the Cougar faithful, they were able to do just that when Wolk found David Smith in the back of the endzone for the nifty toe-tap TD reception to get Hazleton on the board first with the Cougars leading 7-0 with 5:36 to play in the opening quarter.
Unphased by the initial Hazleton score, Donegal began to write a rebuttal on their ensuing possession. After a nice return on the kickoff by Tyler Rupp of Donegal put the Indians on their own 31 yard line, Donegal began to move. On the first play of the drive, Nick Ketner exploded for a 34 yard burst to Donegal deep in Hazleton territory. Faced with a 3rd & 7 later in the drive, senior quarterback Ryan Buckius was able to find Rupp for the 12 yard hookup to keep the drive alive with Donegal now planted at the Cougar 20 yard line. Donegal’s next third down conversion would prove to be even more successful as Cam Ellis was able to bull his way into the endzone from 13 yards out to confirm the Donegal answer with the Indians now within a point at 7-6, which was the score when the first quarter concluded.
It appeared that Hazleton had found a response of their own on the next Cougar possession, but an ill-timed holding call whistled against Hazleton wiped away a brief Adrian Otero 23 yard touchdown sending the Cougars back from whence they came. Faced with a 3rd & 14 later from the Donegal 35, the Cougars drew up a swing pass, but the Donegal defense was able to sniff it out as the Indians held firm forcing yet another Hazleton punt.
The field position battle was in full effect for nearly the remainder of the second quarter, but that all seemed to change with a late Hazleton drive just before the intermission. Taking over at their own 17 yard line, the Cougars needed something to get this series in gear. Getting the ball into the hands of physically-imposing senior running back Adrian Otero always seems like the best course of action. Hazleton was able to do exactly that as a perfectly designed wheel route saw the 6’1 225lb running back be the recipient as the Cougars were now suddenly out to midfield. After identical plays saw Sparky Wolk hook up with David Smith along the Cougar sideline, Hazleton was down to the Donegal 27 yard line. The Cougars then went for the gusto as Wolk launched a pass hurdling toward the endzone but a magnificent deflection from senior defensive back Keeryen Stevens thwarted the Cougar attempt at points.
For all the mojo that Hazleton seemed to be accumulating on this drive just before the break, all that momentum fell down to the floor when Cael Rapp read his keys perfectly as the junior defensive lineman diagnosed the Hazleton screen pass perfectly and picked off the pass to send the game into halftime.
The defensive struggle that made up the first half translated into most of the third quarter as well. As both sides duked it out and traded punts with one another, it would be Donegal who would mount a drive in the latter stages of the third quarter after taking over at their own 17 yard line. The Indians were able to get out from deep within their own territory after a big run by Nick Ketner got things started with Donegal now setting up shop at the midfield stripe. From there, Donegal continued to pound the rock as a Cameron Ellis run moved the Indians down to the Cougar 38 yard line as the Donegal ground game began to churn out the yards. Their momentum was somewhat put to a halt later on in the drive as a 3rd & 4 attempt was stuffed by the Hazleton defense leading to a critical 4th down attempt facing the Indians. It proved to be no matter as a Ryan Buckius pass to Cam Ellis extended the drive for Donegal. With momentum clearly on their side following the enormous 4th down conversion, Donegal returned to their bread and butter of running the football as another nice jaunt by Ketner moved the Indians down to the Hazleton 9 yard line. Cameron Ellis was able to finish off the drive from there as his 2 yard plunge gave Donegal their first lead of the ballgame with the Indians now leading 13-7 heading into the final quarter.
As the final stanza got underway, Hazleton was clearly on the move looking for a response. In the opening moments of the quarter, Hazleton found themselves staring at a 3rd & 6 attempt from the Donegal 28 yard line. The Cougars went for the gusto as a Sparky Wolk pass traveled toward the endzone, only to be knocked away by yet another sensational play in the defensive backfield from Donegal’s Keeryen Stevens. The Cougars promptly went for it on 4th down, however the swing pass to Damon Horton was short of the line to gain with the Indians holding on downs.
After the successful stand by the Indian defense, the Donegal offense went back on the attack. The initial momentum that they were able to enjoy following a 13 yard Cameron Ellis run on the first play of the drive was somewhat halted with a crucial 3rd & 9 from the Donegal 36 yard line afoot following a Donegal timeout. The play that was designed on the sideline worked like a charm as a strike from Buckius to senior wideout Seiler Edwards over the middle moved the Indians down to the Hazleton 31 yard line. Rejuvenated by their third down conversion, the Indians found paydirt once again as a 27 yard touchdown run by Nick Ketner gave Donegal the now commanding 20-7 lead with just 7:11 left to play.
With time running out, Hazleton needed to mount a charge and fast. Taking over at their own 30 with just 2:48 to go, the Cougars got in gear when Wolk was able to find Jacob Hunsinger for the long pass down to the Donegal 40 yard line. After a penalty was whistled against Damon Horton following a big gainer deep into Donegal territory for hurdling a defender, a feat not permissible by the high school rulebook, the Cougars were forced to return to the 40 yard line if they wished to have an answer. Their wish was granted with Horton on the receiving end of a Sparky Wolk TD pass from 40 yards out to narrow Donegal’s lead to 20-14 with just 1:55 to play with an inevitable onside kick attempt upcoming.
Unfortunately for the home side, that would be all the closer the Cougars would get on this night as the onside kick trickled out of bounds giving the ball back to the Indians with time running out. Donegal was ultimately able to navigate past the last white-knuckle part of the contest with Tyler Rupp running around end to convert the 3rd & 6 attempt, icing the game and sending Donegal home with the long and happy bus ride back to Mount Joy after a 20-14 triumph over Hazleton.
For as good as Donegal’s offense has performed the last several weeks, it was their defensive effort that was far and away the biggest reason for their victory on Friday night. A unit that Donegal head man Jeff Polites was happy to see improvement in, especially after last week’s setback. “I’m really excited,” Polites said postgame regarding the Indians defensive output. “We were disappointed in our defensive performance last week in pass coverage and I thought our kids really stepped it up this week in the gameplan. They learned it, practiced it, knew it, and came out and performed tonight.”
NEXT UP: Donegal will look to build off this landmark victory as the Indians face a stretch run that includes the likes of Lancaster Catholic and Annville Cleona in LL Section 3 play. To be sure, Friday’s night win will likely serve as a late season catalyst for Donegal heading home. “It’s great. It’s going to be a huge lift for us to finish the year on a positive note,” Polites went on to add. In fact according to Coach Polites, this game was the perfect medicine for wiping away the bad taste left in their mouth after last week. “We really needed to get a breakaway from our normal routine,” Polites detailed. “It was nice to come up here. We got the nice bus and had a nice long bus ride. The parents and our athletic department treated us well for this game and the kids responded.”
Hazleton now look to regroup after Friday night’s defeat as the Cougars hunt for a postseason berth. It won’t be easy however as the Cougars will have to go on the road in their final two games of the regular season to Dallas and Crestwood respectively. Two teams that are on a combined 7 game win streak.
Follow EasternPAFootball.com on Twitter @EPAFootball
Share This Post: