No. 12 Seed Cocalico Looks Anything But, Dismantles #1 Solanco En Route To Third District 3-5A Championship Game In Five Years
Undeniably, one of the most fun and unique parts about this weekend in particular –the weekend that is the semifinal and final rounds of four of the six classes in the District 3 ranks – is that tantalizing matchups would likely abound given the sheer breadth of high-quality high school football volume that the mid-state has to offer. Well, maybe not necessarily in the 5A realm most specifically.
No, not to intimate in the least that Friday night’s matchup between Cocalico and Solanco would be a battle waged between two clubs that were not of high quality, but rather that this had strictly local flavor. Lancaster County flavor to be precise.
It’s funny in some ways. For years, Solanco and Cocalico were divisional playmates that could be found competing against one another while inside the same section of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. Sure, but that was before this year’s mega-merger between the L-L and the Berks leagues morphed into a gargantuan hodgepodge of 37 teams with some classic matchups going by the wayside all in the name of change. Ironically though, not even a change in scenery could keep these two squads –arguably the two most infamous Lancaster County football programs that feature a doctorate-level course in running a variation of the triple option – away from one another this year either as Solanco by way of Section Three was able to best Cocalico by way of Section Four to the tune of a 21-7 final triumph way back in Week 2 of the 2022 campaign.
And while the Golden Mules largely figured to be the prohibitive preseason darling to eventually emerge out of that pack from within Section Three, especially aided and abetted by what must feel like the entire male portion of the student body’s senior class occupying a spot on the school’s varsity football roster, that triumph over Cocalico would only be a precursor of things, namely in the form of wins, yet to come this season.
To be sure, Solanco has done a lot of winning this season. Like, literally nothing but winning. So much so in fact that the Mules ran the table throughout the regular season, finishing with a perfect 10-0 record to their name, all of which helped culminate in the eventual #1-seed that rightfully and justly earned in the District 3-5A field heading into postseason play. Now granted, although they were certainly pushed to the brink and then some last Friday night against by a very dangerous eighth-seeded Shippensburg bunch, the Mules’ eventual 42-35 vault against the Greyhounds propelled them into Friday’s Final Four against their old pals by way of Denver.
You know, this isn’t exactly rarefied air here for Cocalico. Sure, while the seed line may be different –frankly, a lot different from what Eagles’ teams of the recent past have entered the postseason with besides their name – having Cocalico continue to play football up until the week of Thanksgiving and potentially beyond seems just as commonplace as the sun rising in the east and set in the west. Like clockwork, Cocalico is consistently and undeniably one of the premier teams, nay brands, that call the L-L League their home. However, the unspoken birthright of Cocalico eventually slithering its way throughout the regular season and into the playoffs this year certainly felt like anything but a sure thing at times.
Oddly enough, and as strange as it is to type this out loud, the Eagles were dancing right on knife’s edge when it came to playing beyond Week 10 this season, especially heading into their October 14th matchup against Donegal while sporting a rather unassuming 3-4 record heading into the final quarter pole of the season following a sound 38-14 defeat at the hands of Wyomissing the week prior. Since then, Cocalico has quickly become one of the most dangerous ballclubs on the eastern side of the Susquehanna.
Outscoring the opposition by an average 32-point margin of victory in the final three weeks to finish out the regular season slate, the Eagles were awarded an extremely misleading and equally dangerous #12-seed in the 5A field, quickly putting those around them on notice that this was anything but a ho-hum, ragtag Cinderella outfit to contend with. Case in point, their absolute thrashing of another L-L League foe, Elizabethtown, as the Bears’ loud and boisterous offensive arsenal was reduced to a mere whimper on their home field by virtue of Cocalico’s 42-2 eventual triumph over the #5 seed two weeks ago in the opening round of the 5A bracket. From there, the merry band of road warriors continued with their victorious conquests, taking down the aptly named Gettysburg Warriors last week by a 23-13 final count, all of which helped lay the groundwork for this high stakes semifinal round matchup that while intense, somehow also felt enrobed with a communal football family reunion of sorts between two all-too-familiar foes down in Quarryville on a bone-chilling Friday night.
But if this were to serve as an old-fashioned get-together, rest assured that the guests arrived with nothing but bad intentions.
To say that the defenses reigned supreme in the early going on Friday night would be nothing if not a gross understatement. In fact, each side’s respective staunchness on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage was on display right from the jump as the Solanco defense promptly stiffened on their initial trip out on the field, stymying a Cocalico 4th & 1 attempt deep inside their own territory which awarded Solanco their first offensive series once they set up shop at the Eagles’ 33-yard line.
Here too though were the Cocalico defensive troops.
Just like their counterparts, the Mules’ first offensive series never got going in good form. Sure enough, after a tackle for loss complied by way of Cocalico defensive mates, Dane Bollinger and Owen Weaver respectively on a 3rd & 17 play, Solanco was forced to punt it away on their opening drive which allowed Cocalico to go back on offense at their own 33.
Suffice to say, various fourth down stops and eventual punts were the main storyline that encapsulated the first quarter of play as neither team was able to generate a first down for themselves save for the final play from scrimmage inside the first period which bore witness to Cocalico’s Sam Steffey plowing his way forward for a 5-yard pickup which while innocent looking on the surface, proved to be the first bit of blood that either side appeared to draw out of the opposition as the quick-moving first stanza ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
As it turned out, however, the aforementioned first down run picked up by the Eagles’ junior running back may have opened the floodgates after all.
While facing a 3rd & 8 at the midfield stripe inside the opening moments of the second quarter, Cocalico took to the air with a rare pass attempt which proved to be worth its weight in gold given that quarterback Josh Myer’s 15-yard toss to Dane Bollinger not only allowed the Eagles to move the sticks and get a fresh of downs, it also helped set up their bread and butter –running the football down the opponent’s throat.
True to form, small but noticeable incisions that came courtesy of Steffey’s legs helped to usher the white-clad visitors even further down the field as this drive began to round into form. And while Sam Steffey may have laid the groundwork, his quarterback, sophomore Josh Myer, was there to finish things off with a perfectly-timed delayed draw play on a key 3rd & 2 which resulted in a 19-yard gainer that put Cocalico right on the precipice of their first score of the evening with the ball now resting at the Mules’ 6-yard line. Then, with the Eagles’ brain trust obviously liking what they just saw on the previous play, Myer was able to call his own number yet again as his 6-yard touchdown run allowed Cocalico to enjoy the 7-0 advantage following a Cole Roos PAT with 7:12 left to play in the opening half.
Not that Solanco’s ensuing offensive drive would exactly be defined as a “do or die” here with not even half the second quarter having expired at that juncture, but certainly coming up with points would be the most advantageous thing that the Mules could do at this particular point in time. Well, it certainly appeared as if they took that message to heart once they regained possession as a prompt 25-yard dash from Solanco senior all-state multi-threat, Elijah Cunningham, on the very first play of the series most assuredly got the Golden Mules’ offense out on the right foot to begin this drive. From there, following Cunningham’s gallop around the right side of the line, another senior in the Solanco rotation, Cole Harris, proceeded to play the role of a battering ram as his persistent, hard-earned chunk plays through the heart of the Cocalico defensive line eventually saw the Mules wind up at the Eagles’ 32-yard line. However, even though they were clearly moving downhill, the Cocalico defense was able to author up another essential defensive stop, eventually holding the Mules on downs coming on the heels of a 4th & 3 stop courtesy of a timely tackle tallied by way of Cocalico senior two-way lineman, Chuckie Drain.
Fittingly, especially given the way in which both defensive units had performed up until that point in the opening half, it seemed nothing if not apropos for the opening 24 minutes to later run dry in the form of a 7-0 difference, a lead which was possessed by Cocalico.
As they often say, but particularly here with two teams that love to sit on leads if they can obtain them, the opening few minutes of the second half on Friday night would almost certainly prove to be vital in terms of the final outcome. Well, in that respect, Cocalico not only knew but then excelled in the assignment.
In fact, after holding Solanco to a three-and-out coming out of the halftime recess, the Eagles went right back to work at their own 42-yard line and just kept hammering away. Case in point, a pair of Josh Myer quarterback runs which allowed them to cross into Mules’ territory, the last of which came following a third-down conversion, as Cocalico found themselves residing on the Solanco 41-yard line. Then, with the dam appearing to break just so, a 37-yard scamper by Sam Steffey suddenly moved the Cocalico attack down to the Solanco 14-yard line following the junior’s run around the right side. From there, Steffey was able to reap the fruits of his earlier labor as his 12-yard touchdown run made it a 13-0 cushion in the Eagles’ favor after the PAT was blocked with 6:37 still left to play in the third frame.
While no one may have known it at the time, that exchange right there would be a harbinger of things yet to unfold.
Sure enough, after holding the potent Solanco offensive attack to yet another brief three-and-out, a one-play would be afoot for the Eagles. Here, with Steffey serving as a surgeon who would slice and incise his way through the Mules’ defense methodically all night long, Cocalico’s good doctor was able to rip off a 45-yard touchdown gallop would seem as it may have broken the Mules’ collective back as the lightning-quick series resulted in a 19-0 advantage in favor of the Eagles after the two-point try was no good, which is exactly where things would remain once the final 4:49 ticked off the third quarter clock.
Once inside the fourth quarter, if Steffey’s earlier touchdown which put the Eagles up by three scores hadn’t been enough to formally close the door at that point, Cocalico would nail it shut for good.
Yet again, with Steffey serving as the Eagles’ feature back, the holes being blown up the Cocalico offensive line only continued to grow larger in size and stature. In fact, the Eagles would proceed to march 65-yards down the field on this drive, all to the tune of plays occurring on the ground, as an eventual 1-yard Josh Myer quarterback touchdown keeper made it a 25-0 contest in favor of the guests with just 5:03 left to play.
Needless to say, the timing was paramount if Solanco had any last tricks up their sleeve to try and conjure up some sort of frantic late-game rally.
In that regard, the Mules were most certainly warm to the fight as a sensational kickoff return by way of junior defensive back, Landon Steele, allowed the Solanco offense to set up shop at the Eagles’ 36-yard line. As it turned out, that would be all the further they would need to travel before cracking that pesky goose egg as a gorgeous 36-yard bomb concocted by the Solanco senior duo of quarterback Brody Mellinger and wideout Elijah Cunningham on the first and only play of the series gave the Golden Mules a glimmer of hope as the difference stood at a 25-8 count following the successful two-point try with 4:46 left to play.
However, the Cocalico offense, mainly Sam Steffey, would arrive on the scene to put any lingering flames out once and for all.
On their ensuing offensive drive following the failed Solanco onsides kick which trickled its way out of bounds, the Eagles went right back to, you guessed it, the ground-and-pound attack.
Here, with the holes only continuing to bubble up even wider and wider, a 29-yard scoot by Steffey quickly ushered the advance down the Solanco 26-yard line. And given the way in which Cocalico had so soundly dominated this entire affair from start to finish in nearly every phase possible –not to mention a first-quarter Aaryn Longenecker 63-yard punt return touchdown which was called back due to a holding penalty – it seemed only fitting that the final punctuation mark on this evening would come in the form of a 6-yard Sam Steffey touchdown plunge, his third TD of the contest, as the #12-seed was able to not only right the wrongs of a 14-point defeat to this same talented Solanco squad that came two months earlier, but it also more importantly awarded them a spot in the District 3-5A title game against Exeter next Friday night by virtue of their 32-8 triumph here over Solanco.
“I thought our defense as a whole was just swarming,” Cocalico head coach Bryan Strohl said afterward in the wake of his team’s emphatic 25-point triumph, a victory that occurred yet again on the road. “When you play a triple-option offense, you have to be sound assignment-wise. I thought our kids did that,” he added. “They watched the film, paying attention to their keys, and we put that practice to work tonight which was really cool to see. The last time we played (Solanco), we only gave up something like 100 yards rushing, but we played so poorly offensively that night that looking back on it, I think I was so frustrated that I didn’t realize how well our defense had played, and they’ve played so well this entire year,” Strohl continued. “There were definitely things that we were afraid of going in, but we trust our kids and they definitely performed.”
Candidly, while those on the outside might be somewhat perplexed to still see a #12-seed not only be alive and kicking at this moment but downright thrashing the opposition heading into championship weekend, those with a keen knowledge of the local high school football landscape should be well aware that Cocalico, especially this 2022 Cocalico crew, is anything but a double-digit seed in actual reality.
“We felt that if we got into the playoffs, we could do something with it,” said Strohl of his camp’s outlook heading into those last few weeks of the regular season. “I don’t know if we quite imagined this, but we’ll see what happens from here on out,” he said with a smile. “We told our kids, ‘The seeds are what they are.’ Look, the four teams we lost to were 37-3 in the regular season. When you play that type of competition, you are going to be better at it. Were we frustrated at times we couldn’t win one of those big games? Yes, but it’s been nice to see these kids win some big games here in the playoffs…Their growth from the beginning of the year, even from mid-season until now, (his team) has started to see some good things happen, have started to believe, and the carryover has been awesome.”
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