New Year, Same Ole Barons: Manheim Central Handles Cocalico For Second Consecutive District 3-5A Crown To Advance To Eastern State Final
No matter what the time and no matter what the place, there is just something inherently special that goes along with rivalry games. However, when you raise the stakes and put a championship on the line, the excitement and fervor admittedly gets ratcheted up to an entirely different level. For both the Cocalico Eagles and Manheim Central Barons, that was precisely the environment that both were walking into Friday evening at nearby Manheim Township High School to settle the score on the latest installment of their long-standing feud with the District 3-5A title and a spot in the PIAA Eastern State Final up for grabs.
When talking about the overall grand landscape of Lancaster-Lebanon League football, the brutal subdivision known as Section 2 tends to more often than not being the section that takes the cake in terms of recognition across the mid-state for its incredible depth and competitive-nature which is featured on a weekly basis. And for good reason too.
Consider this, coming into this year’s postseason, five of the seven schools that reside in L-L Section 2 were able to navigate their way into the playoffs between 4A & 5A respectively with another squad, Conestoga Valley, entering the final night of a the regular season with a chance to lock up a bid as well. And within the confines of Lancaster-Lebanon Section 2, perhaps no series is more fiercely contested and more highly anticipated than the annual grudge match waged between Cocalico and Manheim Central.
Make no mistake about it, Friday night’s affair at Manheim Township would offer no great learning curve for either squad in the days and nights leading up to the game. Over the years, particularly in the last handful, the Barons and Eagles have made a habit of renewing pleasantries two times during the season. In fact, heading into this weekend’s title tilt, Black Friday’s nightcap would mark the third straight season in which Central and Cocalico had met up in either the District semifinal round or as in Friday’s case, the championship game. And if you’re into keeping score, Manheim Central owns a 4-1 record during that span with all four of their victories coming in consecutive fashion. So needless to say, both sides knew the opposition inside and out.
For Manheim Central, it was largely believed before the season that the defending champion Barons would be able to once again find their way into this year’s District 3-5A title game for a third straight season considering the sheer wealth of talent and all-important experience that the mighty Barons had returning from a 2017 outfit that was within a whisker of playing for the ultimate prize, the state championship, for what would have been the third time in the last fifteen years. After all, literally no one has ever been better in the District 3 playoffs than the Barons considering Manheim Central tops the list in three most important categories — Championship game appearances with 22, wins with 57 overall, and gold trophies with 17 already back in the halls of the school on Adele Ave in Manheim. And as mentioned, the Barons have been able to live up to this year’s preseason hype in the most impressive of fashions.
By this stage of the game, when the calendar flips to Thanksgiving weekend, it’s incredibly hard to find many teams left standing across the entire state that still have a goose egg residing in the loss column. And in a way that seems to define their program every single year since what feels like the dawn of time of itself, this year’s Baron bunch have been able to pass every test put in front of them thus far in 2018 as evidenced by their 12-0 record. In fact, outside of two games this season against L-L Section 1 opponents in Wilson and Warwick respectively, the Barons have largely been untested which perfectly illustrates just how sensational this group has been. And at a school like Manheim Central, yeah, that’s saying an awful lot.
Just chew on this nugget real briefly — Remember the earlier anecdote above just how impressive L-L Section 2 is from top to bottom? Well, the Barons have been able to make mincemeat of that same daunting competition this season by coming out the other side with an unblemished record, winning those games by a jaw-dropping combined total of 302-51.
However, if ever there was a team that would refuse to back down from the challenge posed by the Baron Football brand, it would be none other than Cocalico.
By now, especially over the last span of last few two weeks, you know the story here. Often overlooked and underappreciated by a larger football audience, the Cocalico Eagles have always and likely will always find a way to serve a plate of crow best served ice-cold to the naysayers, doubters and general outside chatter that sometimes suggests an impending dip from the Eagles’ consistent yearly output. But admittedly, it may be fair and even downright appropriate to say that the success of this year’s squad could be viewed as a surprise.
Largely gutted by graduation and the loss of key senior starters across the board from last year’s team that was able to reach the District semifinal round before bowing out to Manheim Central, this year’s version of Cocalico football has been able to step out and write their own story by coming into District Championship weekend with a 10-2 record with what some in the Eagles’ brass consider one of, if not the toughest schedule in school history, with their only setbacks coming at the hands of the Barons and last year’s District 3-6A champion, Manheim Township. And in their stretch of six straight victories since those back-to-back setbacks around the midway point of the regular season, Cocalico has looked like one of the better outfits across all classifications inside District 3 by scoring no fewer than 36 points, including going over the 60-point threshold in two of their last three contests.
And with that, in a matchup that was marinated with the highest of anticipation inside the Lancaster County borders during the week leading up to Friday night, the Eagles and Barons were finally set to do battle with the stakes being at their absolute highest.
From the get-go, it appeared that the Eagles were eager to make a dramatic opening statement as evidenced by Cocalico’s sensational junior running back, Ronald Zahm, taking off on a 24-yard gallop for an early tone-setter to get the Eagles out near the midfield stripe at their own 42 yard line on the opening play from scrimmage. Ultimately however, the early momentum that was generated by the Zahm run would be extinguished by the Manheim Central defensive troops, giving blue-chip junior quarterback Evan Simon and the high-flying Barons’ offense their first turn with the ball, taking over at their own 18 yard line.
And right on command, Simon wasted little time in showing his Howitzer of an arm by immediately hooking up with senior wideout Isaac Perron for a 14-yard pickup and junior receiver Colby Wagner for an 11-yard connection shortly after that to quickly usher the Barons down to their own 48 yard line. However, in a cruel twist of fate, the initial aerial assault would also taketh away from the Barons early on as Cocalico’s Austin Landers was able to sit down an MC pass route and earn the spoils of film study by snaring an interception which concluded Manheim Central’s opening series.
After taking over at their own 45 yard line following the timely Landers takeaway, the Eagles then proceeded to lean on their always-reliable rushing attack to rip off big chunks of yardage against the Barons’ defensive unit in order to ignite another march down the field. Aided in the drive thanks to a key option pitch from junior quarterback Noah Palm to freshman wingback Steven Clark on a 3rd& 3 from the Barons’ 48 yard line, the Eagles were rewarded with a fresh set of downs following the Clark 5-yard gainer. From there, the Cocalico offense received a jolt of energy in the form of senior running back Garrett Longenecker exploding for a massive 20-yard chunk play through the heart of Central’s defense as the Eagles’ advance was now sitting on the brink of the Manheim Central redzone. And just as they had been able to do earlier in the drive, the Eagles were able to convert on another 3rd& 3 conversion as this time Palm was able to successfully call his own number, moving the sticks yet again with a late hit personal foul call whistled against the Barons at the conclusion of the play, moving the ball down to Manheim Central 6 yard line.
Over the course of the next few ensuing plays however, the Cocalico offense would soon discover that the impending yards left to go until paydirt would be that much more difficult as the Barons’ defense would proceed to yield only four more yards over the ensuing few plays, having things culminate in a critical 4th& Goal scenario at the Manheim Central 2 yard line. Unfortunately, for the blue-clad fans that had made the trek over from Denver, not only would the Eagles not get in, they would also turn the ball over as Manheim Central junior defensive back Ben Wagner promptly pounced on the loose pill, giving the ball back to the Barons’ offense with time set to expire on a fast moving first quarter of play.
Once the second quarter got underway, it became even more apparent that the team that would be able to land the first haymaker of the contest would likely help write the narrative for the rest of the night.
Well, check and mate for Manheim Central in that regard.
Despite taking over with a fresh offensive series following a successful defensive stand at the unenviable position of their own 3 yard line with 9:09 left to go in the half with an offense that felt like it had been stuck in mud to that point in the evening, the Barons, as they have done so many times before, quickly proved that the magnitude of the moment was never too big for them.
Sparked by a big 21-yard run by senior workhorse turned running back, Tyler Flick, the Barons were quickly on the move with momentum starting to come around to their sideline. And from that point on in the drive, Flick and the Barons’ offensive line would continue to gash the Cocalico defense.
After picking up a key 3rd& 5 conversion thanks to a 6-yard run later on in the series, the Barons’ senior bully of a running back proceeded to take the snap direct from center and rumble for a 26-yard jaunt to get MC down to the Cocalico 36 yard line. Yet while Flick and the offensive line had been able to generate most of the yards during the possession up until that point, Evan Simon was called upon to deliver the mail on a crucial 3rd& 5 at the Cocalico 16 yard line. And just as the Barons’ faithful have seen so many times before, Simon was able to pass the test with flying colors by rolling the pocket right and finding Ben Wagner for the 16-yard pitch and catch in the endzone which saw Manheim Central draw first blood at 7-0 with 4:27 left to play in the first half.
But the #1 seeded Barons weren’t done there.
Following a successful three-and-out generated by their defense on the ensuing Cocalico offensive drive, the Barons went right back to work at their own 18 yard line with now 2:49 left before the first half horn. And yet despite being displaced 82 yards away from paydirt, it didn’t take the Barons very long to travel that distance. In fact, it would take all of 11 seconds off the game clock in order to do so as Simon went back to the skies to find Colby Wagner who won his one-on-one matchup as the 82-yard bomb concluded the 1-play mic drop of a drive with the Manheim Central lead quickly growing to 14-0 with 2:38 to play in the opening half.
However, when dealing with a white-hot offense the likes of what Manheim Central was quickly becoming, any time left on the clock could prove to be deadly. And sure enough, after holding the Cocalico to yet another punt at the conclusion of the Eagles’ very next series, the Barons were able to tack on a backbreaking touchdown just before the intermission as Evan Simon was able to reconnect with Colby Wagner yet again for a 62-yard exclamation point with just 4 seconds left as the duo’s second consecutive touchdown sent Manheim Central into the break with the commanding 21-0 advantage.
While the latest Simon to Wagner touchdown was monstrous in its own right considering it put the Barons up by three touchdowns, it became even more paramount considering the fact that Manheim Central was set to receive the second half kickoff coming out of the locker room with all the momentum as well.
It then quickly became apparent that the 20 minute halftime siesta did little to cool off the Barons and their desire to create even more distance on the scoreboard. In fact, it would take MC just 1:42 to find the endzone coming out of the break as Simon continued to torch the Cocalico secondary with his fourth TD of the night, this one of the 35-yard variety to guess who, Colby Wagner, as the Barons’ advantage ballooned to what felt like an insurmountable deficit for Cocalico to overcome at 28-0 with 10:18 left to go in the third.
And with the Manheim Central defense doing their part in keeping the highly-potent Cocalico offense largely under wraps for the entirety of the night, the Barons’ offense continued to sizzle in the midst of the bitterly frigid autumn conditions as the third quarter clock started to melt away.
After being stymied their last series following the early third quarter Simon to Wagner connection, the Barons appeared out for vengeance for their most-recent lack of production when taking over at their own 48 yard line with 4:42 left to go in the quarter. Ironically, for as much damage as Evan Simon had been able to impose on the Cocalico defense by way of his expertise in the passing game, it would be his legs which would get the Barons in gear to start this drive as a 13-yard Simon dash immediately took Manheim Central across the midfield stripe and into Eagle territory. From there, Simon went back to the air where he would find senior tight end Evan Hosler leaking across the middle for a 14-yard gainer which signified the Baron snowball now rolling alarmingly downhill. From there, it would be Manheim Central’s Jake Harbach doing the honors to cap the drive off as the imposing junior running back was able dart in from 11-yards out to make it a 35-0 affair in favor of the Barons as the remaining time on the third quarter clock would soon evaporate.
Up until that point, it was obvious that it had been a frustrating night to say the least for the squad from Denver. But finally, in the early stages of the final quarter, Cocalico was able to able to revel in some success and crack into the scoring column thanks to nifty handiwork of quarterback Noah Palm on the 40-yard option keeper TD run which put a dent into the Manheim Central lead, now standing at 35-7 with 10:40 left to play.
However, the Barons’ offense still had work left to do in order to finish the job which quickly became apparent on Central’s next offensive series. On the drive, Simon was able to connect with Colby Wagner for a 30-yard gainer which put the Barons into Cocalico territory before promptly following that up with another 30-yard addition to his already sparkling passing game numbers on a beautiful crossing route to Isaac Perron which moved the Barons’ attack all the way down to the Eagles’ 3 yard line. From there, Tyler Flick was able to finish things off with a 3-yard plunge across the goal line to up the Manheim Central lead to 42-7 with 7:35 to go.
And yet even despite the massive hole that Manheim Central had thrown Cocalico into by that point in contest, the Eagles still continued to fight tooth and nail against their adversaries and were ultimately rewarded for doing so as a sweet 48-yard run by Garrett Longenecker helped set up a 7-yard Noah Palm option keeper around the left end, Palm’s second of the night, to trim the Manheim Central lead to 42-14 with 5:36 to play.
But it would not be enough on this night as the Barons would be able to tack on one more score in the waning stages with a 15-yard toss from Simon to Landan Moyer, Simon’s fifth TD throw of the night, to close things out with the Barons winning their 18thDistrict 3 championship overall, and second in a row, 48-14 over Cocalico.
At a school like Manheim Central, where football success over the years has become so commonplace that it is so finely woven into the town’s makeup in and of itself, winning may seem to take on something that could almost be viewed as a birthright. However, those that have had the privilege to lead the Barons into battle over the last several years are quick to point out that getting to the top, and then ultimately staying at the summit, is not an achievement that should be taken lightly.
“I’m proud of the kids and the way they stepped up tonight because that’s one hell of an offense they (Cocalico) have,” Manheim Central head coach Dave Hahn said in the immediate aftermath Friday night. “It feels really good,” the Barons’ head man went on to say. “I’m proud of the kids because we busted our tail for the last year to get to this point and to play a team like Cocalico, I’m proud of them. To repeat, we haven’t done that since 2004-2005, so to do that again, I think that’s the mark of a good team and a good program.”
NEXT UP: After their triumphant bus ride home back to Manheim with another gold trophy riding shotgun with them, the Barons must quickly shift their focus to the PIAA 5A Eastern State Final game against District 1 champion, Upper Dublin, next weekend at a site and time yet to be determined. And yet even though Manheim Central has certainly left an indelible imagine on the District 3 audience so far this season, Coach Hahn still believes that the world has yet to see the best that the Barons truly have to offer.
“We’re playing pretty good,” Hahn admitted. “I still think we can improve in a number of areas, but I’m happy with where we’re at and how we’re progressing.”
For Cocalico, an incredible season that exceeded expectations came to an abrupt end on Friday night. But eventually, the pain of this weekend’s exit will eventually subside, giving way to the promising future that the Eagle football certainly appears destined to have. And yes, while it is true that nothing great will ever occur without hard work and diligence being put forth during the offseason, the Eagles certainly seemed poised to take flight against next season considering the returning talent which will take to the field against next fall in Denver, including savvy quarterback, and arguably even better safety, Noah Palm, coming back for his senior campaign. Add into the mix and the blazing fast speed on the edge from Ronald Zahm, the punishing running style between the tackles by fullback Cody Shay, the expertise along the line from maulers such as Brock Gingrich, and all signs appear to point another Eagle challenge for a Section 2 crown against next season. And yes, it may very well come right down to Manheim Central and Cocalico tussling over the title once again. After all, would you expect anything less?
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