Junior back helps Danville stave off Athens’ stiff upset bid, advance to District 4 AA title game
DANVILLE, Pa. – During halftime, the Athens Area marching band’s color guard dressed up in costume as superheros, as the group’s performance centered around movies like Batman, Spiderman, and others.
Then, on the verge of being upset on its home turf, No. 1-seeded Danville got its best “Super Friends” impersonation from junior fullback Sam Dressler.
Dressler scored the game-tying touchdown on a 15-yard run with 5:26 left in regulation and kicker Shayne Riley converted the eventual game-winning extra point as Danville (10-2) narrowly escaped a very strong upset bid from Athens Area (9-3) of the Northern Tier League, 14-13, Friday night at Ironmen Stadium in Danville in a District 4 Class AA semifinal game.
With the victory, Danville will host Mount Carmel Area (8-4), a 48-20 winner over Montoursville Friday night in the other District 4 Class AA semifinal game. Mount Carmel is averaging 32.5 points per game in its playoff run to its second consecutive District 4 championship game, while Danville will make its second title game appearance in three years.
A district title game berth, though, was very much in doubt for the Ironmen, and that was so because the visiting Wildcats dictated the flow and pace of much of Friday night’s game.
“They (the team) gave us everything they had,” said Wildcat head coach Jack Young. “They (Danville) are a good football team. Both teams played with a lot of heart and guts. I hope the crowd got its monies’ worth tonight.”
Athens made life miserable for Danville all night long. Normally reliable quarterback Weston Baylor didn’t complete a pass and threw an interception. Danville committed three first-half turnovers and had an interception by Cale Rice negated by a pass interference penalty in the third quarter.
Danville, which spun itself a web of self-imposed errors in the first half, even got controlled at the line of scrimmage in the second half. Athens pushed Danville off the line on its go-ahead touchdown drive, highlighted by Tyler Birdsall runs off right tackle out of a traditional I-formation set. Birdsall’s 14-yard touchdown run, his second of the game, with 6:30 left in the third quarter put Athens ahead, 13-7, but the Wildcats’ extra point attempt was blocked.
“Each team made some little adjustments and we thought we had something there (with the ground game),” Young said.
But on the opposite sideline, there wasn’t much that was sure or certain.
“I have no answer for it,” said Danville head coach James Keiser. “It’s hard to describe this team. I don’t know what was in their heads. But they’re kids (at the end of the day). Maybe it was a rough day at school or something.”
Right before halftime, Dressler, who led all rushers with a game-high 140 yards on 20 carries, was going up and down the home sideline like a man possessed, imploring his team that they were going to get the ball into the end zone. But after a Cale Rice 39-yard touchdown run staked the hosts to a 7-0 lead, Danville only amassed 34 yards rushing and three first downs until there was 7:46 left in regulation.
At that point, the Ironmen had totaled only 103 yards, all rushing. The team huddled around Keiser and the message was simple.
“We told the kids that we needed to score,” Keiser said. “Stop screwing around and get on some blocks and make some plays.”
That’s what Danville did, beginning from its own 15. Dressler ripped off a 49-yard run on a belly trap down to the Athens’ 21. Two plays later, he took the same handoff around left tackle for the tying 15-yard touchdown. Dressler accounted for all 85 Danville yards on the drive and had five of the six rushing attempts in that pivotal sequence.
“Sam’s a good leader,” Keiser said. “He’s a kid who gives 100 percent all of the time.”
“Our linemen sealed the end well and I just took it and ran it to the outside,” Dressler said. “They are a good football team and I think we underestimated them a little bit. We were looking ahead to the District 4 championship game.”
But Danville could exhale a little when Rice notched his second interception – and ninth of the season – of Troy Stivason with 3:34 left in the game, and then fully exhale when Stivason’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 42 ticks left.
“At this point, a W is a W,” Dressler said. “There’s always going to be adversity in high school football, but what defines us is what we do when it comes.”
And in the face of said adversity, Dressler may have just sprouted an “S” across his chest underneath that home orange jersey. And those decisive fullback belly traps were, well, Athens’ playoff kyrptonite.
NOTES: Danville narrowly avoided losing to a Northern Tier League team for the second consecutive season in the playoffs. Last year, the Ironmen fell in the quarterfinal round to Towanda, 35-20…….Athens capped a two-year span in which it won 17 games. “There’s no such thing as moral victories, but I’m very proud of the pride that the kids displayed tonight,” Young said following one final meeting with his team…….Dressler raised his season rushing total to 1,184 yards, a new career high. He had rushed for 1,149 yards as a junior and now is over 2,300 yards for his career in rushing……..Prior to Danville’s winning drive, Athens had outgained the host Ironmen, 160-103…….Birdsall rushed for 86 yards on 25 carries for Athens, finishing his senior season with 1,549 yards and a team-leading 14 touchdowns scored.
Athens 0 7 6 0 – 13
Danville 7 0 0 7 – 14
DAN – Cale Rice 39 run (Shayne Riley kick)
ATH – Tyler Birdsall 3 run (Troy Stivason kick)
ATH – Birdsall 14 run (kick failed)
DAN – Sam Dressler 15 run (Riley kick)
Rushes-yds 32-106 48-194
Passing 8-20-2 0-8-1
Pass yds 69 0
Total offense 175 194
1st downs 10 9
Penalties 4-35 2-20
Turnovers 2 3
RUSHING: ATH: Tyler Birdsall 25-86 2 TD; Shane Martin 3-15; Troy Stivason 2-1; Mike Estes 2-3. DAN: Sam Dressler 20-140 TD; Cale Rice 11-78 TD; Weston Baylor 14-minus-3; TEAM 3-minus-21.
PASSING: ATH: Stivason 8-20-2-69. DAN: Baylor 0-8-1-0.
RECEIVING ATH: Ray McDougan 5-25; Brad Sampson 2-35; Curt Moore 1-9. DAN: None.
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