Harley, Lancaster Catholic Motor Past Donegal As Crusaders Capture Share Of Section 3 Title In Shutout Victory
When high school football coaches, players, and fans alike look up and see that the penultimate week of the regular season has suddenly arrived, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s far from hyperbole to suggest that time is of the upmost essence. For both the Donegal Indians and Lancaster Catholic Crusaders, Friday’s night affair between the two programs would prove to have notion ring true in spades.
Before the season began, most of those with a general sense of understanding concerning the Lancaster-Lebanon League had an inkling that the race to the finish line in Section 3 would serve as the truest form of a marathon sure to last all year long. And with just one week left remaining on the regular season schedule, there were indeed several thoroughbreds still jockeying for top-billing in the frantic, mad dash to the end. Why? Well, literally half of the teams who reside within Section 3 found themselves within one game of the leader, Lancaster Catholic, heading into Friday night. Chief among them, the Donegal Indians.
When Indians came together for the start of fall camp way back in the heat and sweltering humidity that only August can offer, most on the outside of Mount Joy’s town limits likely felt a little uneasy about what Donegal would be able to bring to the table in 2019. It’s understandable too given the fact that the Indians were tasked with unenviable assignment of replacing literally their entire backfield of their famed Wing-T offense, a methodology of offense that is fundamentally based on timing and precise execution. However, even with plenty of new faces in the form of Trent Weaver, Joe Fox, Garrett Blake and Mason Ober now taking over the lion’s share of the responsibilities this season, the aforementioned four along with their fellow offensive brethren responded admirably to the challenge en route to a 5-3 overall mark, including averaging a shade over 35 points per game in their five triumphs. For their work, the Indians found themselves not only one game out of first place in the Section 3 standings, but also residing on the proverbial cut-line of the District 3-4A playoff race with Donegal pegged at the #11 spot in the ten-team field entering Friday evening.
Speaking of the playoffs, making this year’s District 3-3A field certainly won’t cause Lancaster Catholic any sleepless nights heading down the stretch considering the Crusaders entered the weekend at the #3 spot in their respective six-team bracket. But simply making the field is far the end-all, be-all for Catholic this season. No, not when you raced out of the gates to a perfect 10-0 mark in the regular season last year, only to see yourself get tripped up in the very first game of the postseason, on your home turf no less, albeit to a feisty Bermudian Springs outfit. And in a twist of fate almost as expected as the morning sun rising in the east given the recent remarkable success exhibited by their program, here the Crusaders sat once again, somehow seemingly flying under the radar as it were, with Catholic owning a 7-1 overall mark heading into their matchup against Donegal.
But with Catholic already tantalizingly close to capturing another section title, the Crusaders weren’t about to let this opportunity slip. At least not on this night.
Truth be told, it didn’t take very long at all for that notion to be put on display for all to see.
After receiving the opening kickoff, the Crusaders wasted little to no time in authoring an effective first march. And with senior running back Jeff Harley shouldering most of the burden, including galivanting for a 23-yard run which ushered the Catholic advance down to the Donegal 39-yard line, the tone had already been set for the remainder of the contest. From there, the Crusaders to lean on the strong-willed efforts of Harley with the Crusaders’ lightning bolt of a tailback coming up aces at seemingly every turn as Harley once again took off running and didn’t stop until he had crossed the chalk as Harley’s 31-yard touchdown scamper allowed Lancaster Catholic to draw first blood as the Crusaders bolted out to a 7-0 lead with 9:23 left to go in the opening quarter.
For as emphatic an effort as the Crusaders’ offense was able to put together right out of the chute on Friday night, so too did the Catholic defense. In fact, it took them all of two plays to make a dramatic entrance.
On Donegal’s second play from scrimmage, Lancaster Catholic junior defensive back, Nevin Roman, quickly put a stop to any additional Indian damage by diving to snare an interception which gave the ball back to the already white-hot and lathered-up Lancaster Catholic offense.
To say that Lancaster Catholic’s first drive was a success would be an understatement. To say that their second drive was an equally successful march would also be putting it rather mildly. That said, the Crusaders were not immune to facing their own fair share of adversity. And perhaps no better example helped illustrate that notion than with Lancaster Catholic facing a 3rd & 15 at the Donegal 42-yard line. On said play, the Crusaders’ senior quarterback, Gavin Sullivan, took the snap out of the shotgun, rolled to his right and extended the play magnificently before firing a pass down the Catholic sideline into the hands of sophomore wideout, J.J. Keck, as the nifty third down conversion helped moved the Crusaders’ drive all the way down to the Donegal 13-yard line within the blink of an eye. So, with Sullivan clearly invigorated by his handiwork through the air, the Crusaders’ 6’2 160lb dual threat triggerman called his own number on a quarterback draw before reaching the Indians’ 5-yard line after the 8-yard rumble. From there, the objective was rather simple: Give the ball to Harley and watch him go. Sure enough, that is precisely what happened next as Harley was able to dash his way in for his second touchdown of the evening, upping the Lancaster Catholic advantage to 13-0 with 5:38 left to play in the opening stanza after the PAT was blocked.
Once again, as it would prove to be throughout the entirety of the evening in fact, any momentum that the Indians tried to muster was halted in every which way by the Lancaster Catholic defensive troops.
On the ensuing drive following Harley’s second touchdown run, it appeared that perhaps Donegal had finally found something against the stingy Catholic defense when junior running back Garrett Blake barreled his way around the right side of the line en route to a 19-yard pickup which moved Donegal out to their own 39-yard line. However, much to the chagrin for the folks who had traveled into Lancaster city from nearby Mount Joy, they were far from as joyous as their town’s namesake would suggest shortly thereafter as this Donegal drive would also hit the skids, thanks in large part to a bone-crushing sack tallied by Lancaster Catholic sophomore linebacker, Tony Cruz. And with this drive ultimately ending in yet another Donegal punt, the Crusaders went back to work at their own 16-yard line following the exchange in possession with the first quarter set to expire.
On their third possession of the night, early indications appear to lean towards Lancaster Catholic eventually ending this drive in the same manner as its two predecessors, with celebrations in the endzone, but it was not to be. With Harley and fellow senior battering-ram of a running back, Alex Cruz, inflicting the early damage against the Donegal defense, Garrett Blake had clearly had enough of being subjected to that as the Indians’ multifaceted running back turned defensive back read the tunnel screen perfectly, snagging the interception as the Indians were set to take over with their best field position of the night with the ball now resting at their own 45-yard line.
But if you’re sensing a prevailing theme here, you are not mistaken. Yes, this drive too would eventually hit the skids thanks to the efforts from the Lancaster Catholic defensive troops as a 3rd & 6 pass sailed incomplete, giving the ball back to the Crusaders at their own 15-yard line following the Donegal punt.
As mentioned, Lancaster Catholic’s third series on Friday night did not end with such rave reviews as their previous two marches. So, with a keen interest in going back to the basics and riding the bell of the ball who they had brought with them to the dance in the first place, running back Jeff Harley, the Crusaders let their sensational back tote the rock and jitterbug his way all over the Indians’ defense en route to eventually ushering the Lancaster Catholic charge all the way down to the Donegal 9-yard line. Unfortunately for the Crusaders and their contingent, their emphatic march down the field would eventually be halted by their own undoing as the mustard-clad Crusaders were hit with unsportsmanlike conduct and holding calls shortly thereafter, thus ending the momentum that appeared all but certain to eventually end with Catholic tacking on another touchdown. That said, the Crusaders were still able to end the preceding events with points however as Lancaster Catholic sophomore kicker. Daniel Mueller, was able to boot home the 32-yard field goal which allowed Catholic to enjoy the 16-0 cushion with 5:22 left to play in the opening half.
Yet even despite their current advantage, it was obvious that Lancaster Catholic still felt like there was work left to accomplish in the waning stages of the first half. And after taking over at the Donegal 44-yard line following another successful stand courtesy of their defense, the Crusaders went right back to work offensively, eager to end the drive by tallying one more score before the intermission.
Although it may not have been in the most conventional of manners best exhibited by the Crusaders employing the once famous “Wildcat,” Lancaster Catholic would indeed make good on their late-half intentions as a bruising 3-yard touchdown run courtesy of Alex Cruz allowed the Crusaders to head into the halftime recess as owners of the 23-0 lead once the final 44 seconds eventually bled off the second quarter clock.
For as many fireworks as Lancaster Catholic was able to put together in the first half, the Donegal defense had clearly solved what ailed them back in the locker room as the Indians were largely able to put a lid on the Crusaders’ high-powered offense the rest of the way. So, when looking for Lancaster Catholic highlights in the second half, in third quarter most specifically, one should then turn to the Crusaders’ defense.
Speaking of clamping down on an opponent, that is exactly what Catholic was able to do throughout the entirety of the evening at large. In fact, the second half would not look much different as the Crusaders’ defense simply refused to be penetrated at every turn, perhaps best personified by Catholic’s Mason McClair rising up from his defensive back spot and winning his one-on-one matchup against a Donegal receiver as the sophomore defensive back earned himself an interception which successfully thwarted the tricky Donegal flea-flicker on the Indians’ second offensive drive of the second half.
From there, the Catholic defense continued to play lights out as the Crusaders refused to yield to the Indians on Donegal’s ensuing offensive possession as Catholic senior linebacker, Henry Gartley, brought the heat and collected a sack, thus ending the once-promising Donegal drive with an exclamation mark on the Indians’ 4th & 9 attempt.
In many ways, it would have seemed rather fitting to have the Lancaster Catholic defense eventually end up scoring as well given the way they had played throughout the entirety of the evening. And almost as if to be right on cue, that is precisely what happened when senior Trey Wells blasted his way through the Donegal offensive line, forcing a fumble from his defensive line spot, before seeing the ball harmlessly trickle out of the back of the endzone for the Crusader deuce which gave the Crusaders a four-score advantage at 25-0 with time starting to run out.
Yet even though time was indeed winding down, that was more than enough time for Jeff Harley to make one more dramatic play before the evening was over and done with.
And he wouldn’t have to wait very long either. On the ensuing kickoff following the safety engineered by Wells, Harley received the kick just past the midfield stripe before taking off right up the heart of the Donegal coverage unit and not stopping until he had crossed into the endzone as Harley’s 56-yard kickoff return for a touchdown made it a 32-0 Lancaster Catholic affair with 8:35 left to go.
So, with the damage already having been more than enough throughout the first 40 minutes, 32-0 is exactly where things would remain once the scoreboard clock read all zeroes at end of a chilly Friday night, as Lancaster Catholic was able to clinch at least of a share of back-to-back Lancaster Lebanon League Section 3 titles thanks to their resounding shutout victory over a very game Donegal squad.
Needless to say, there was plenty of praise to go around such an emphatic performance put together by the entire Lancaster Catholic squad on Friday night from top to bottom. Chief among them, the defense.
“I think that the defense that we put together is designed to defend that (Wing-T) offense, so we were pretty confident with the kind of defensive effort we were going to get tonight,” Lancaster Catholic second-year head coach Todd Mealy said afterwards regarding the Crusaders’ effort in pitching a shutout on Friday night. “We didn’t think that we’d shut them out, but we thought that maybe we could keep them to a few scores. We were concerned those scores would be on big plays.”
“We changed some things in the secondary both personnel-wise and with the techniques we teach, so we adjusted those mid-season,” Mealy went on to add. “Hats off to the coaching staff for being able to be pragmatic during the season to find out that something’s not working and say, ‘Let’s do something different.’ I trust our ability to teach the kids how to do it and for them to execute it. I think we’re peaking at the right time.”
Defense aside, the magnificent performance put together by Jeff Harley from his running back spot on Friday night was not one to get lost in the shuffle either. Sure enough, his head coach whole-heartedly agreed.
“Last year, he was limited as a back. He was really out on the perimeter,” said Mealy of Harley. “This year, he’s been able to add running between the tackles to his game. It’s made him a better player and now he’s contributing on the defensive side as well. He’s taking pride in that. He takes just as much pride in being a corner as he does running the football.”
As mentioned, while the 32-0 shutout victory was glitzy enough in its own right, the fact that it allowed Lancaster Catholic to capture at least a piece of yet another section title added another glossy finish to the Crusaders’ performance put together against Donegal. But make no mistake about it. The message heading into Friday night was strictly business.
“It does mean something, but here’s the thing. We don’t talk about it at all,” said Mealy about claiming another section title in the annals of Catholic’s storied history. “What we talked about was Donegal. We talked about Donegal and the message that those coaches were giving their kids how (Donegal) have a shot to win the section title, but they have to beat us and they’d have to win out. So, we talked about (Donegal), but we know our kids know.”
“It doesn’t come out of our mouths,” said Mealy regarding the philosophy offered from the Crusaders’ coaching brass. “That’s just how we’ve always approached it. So, it does make a game like this one anti-climactic just because we’re not saying to each other, ‘Hey, if we win, we lock down a section title.’ That’s just not how we approach it.”
NEXT UP: Following their impressive stone-walling of a solid Donegal outfit, the Crusaders will now look forward to next Friday night back at home for Senior Night when the Crusaders welcome Pequea Valley to their new, palatial estate nestled in their own quaint little neighborhood found inside Lancaster city. From there, the Crusaders will fix and tinker with some final few adjustments before venturing off into what they hope is another long postseason run. Needless to say, it’s an assignment that this year’s group of hungry Crusaders is eager to make good on.
“It’s just tough to do that because it’s a new team,” Mealy said when asked if this year’s group felt compelled to in some ways “fix” the untimely end to the Crusaders’ season just one year ago. “We had a third of our team disappear because of graduation and transfers,” added Mealy. “This was for the most part a different offense and a different defense in terms of personnel that we’re putting on the field, so that loss in the playoffs last year stung a little bit more to only a small number of the players.”
“One of the things I said to (the team) at the end of the season was that I kind of wished we would have lost in the regular season and had not gone 10-0 because now we have a little bit more urgency. We’re peaking now. Last year, I don’t think we peaked at the end of the year because nothing happened to us in the middle of the season that kind of kicked us in the butt and didn’t have us focus more than what we were accustomed to doing. So, a loss in the middle of the season (to Lebanon) this year was good for us.”
With their game now with Lancaster Catholic now behind them, the Indians must now prepare for one last guaranteed game this season when Donegal returns home for Northern Lebanon. Should they win, the Indians will likely have to ask for additional outside help from other pockets of the District 3 football landscape if they are to snag a playoff spot in 2019.
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