Heading to the finals

By on November 20, 2018

Cocalico rips York, will face defending champion Barons in 5A District title game

Cocalico entered the 2018 season with more questions than not, after graduating 17 seniors from last year’s 10-2 squad.

And facing a Murderer’s Row schedule that included non-league games vs. traditional powers Conrad Weiser, Cedar Cliff and Governor Mifflin, not to mention the rigors of the week-to-week wars that go along with playing in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League, no one could have predicted the journey this group of Eagles would travel.

But the Eagles matured quickly and posted a very impressive 8-2 regular season mark, earning the second seed in Districts and a first-round bye. They followed that up with a 36-0 shutout of Shippensburg in the quarterfinals.

Yet Saturday, moments after their latest win, a punishing 61-35 victory over York in the District Three 5A semifinals at Manheim Central High School which vaulted the Eagles into next week’s finals, there were still “pinch me” moments for Cocalico Coach Dave Gingrich and his players when asked to describe the season’s path to this point.

“It takes a lot to make me speechless but I am speechless with what this team has done,” Gingrich said. “All we lost from a year ago, playing the schedule we had with the replacements that we had. Going with one scrimmage. There was so many things working against this team except chemistry.

“Their chemistry…I don’t care if you’re the best player on this team or the 44th-best player on this team, everyone has a role. Everyone has value. I think that’s the one thing this team has done better than a lot of teams we have had in the past. Everyone feels they’re a part of the team.”

All played a part, at least it seemed that way Saturday as the Eagles were locked in a shoot-out early before pulling away with a big second half to knock off the Bearcats (11-2).

Senior fullback Jason Longenecker rushed for 229 yards and a score on 24 carries while QB Noah Palm had 129 yards and four rushing touchdowns to lead the Eagle offense, which rolled up 437 yards on the ground.

Defensively, Cocalico did enough to slow down a potent York attack led by 3,000-yard rusher Dayjure Stewart (133 yards on 25 carries) as the Eagles advanced to the finals for the first time since 2014.

There they’ll see a familiar opponent in top-seeded Manheim Central (12-0), which outlasted Cedar Cliff 42-20 in Saturday’s other semifinal. The District final will be played Friday (7 p.m.) at Manheim Township where the Eagles will look to avenge one of their two losses, a 41-23 mid-season setback to the Barons, and capture their third District title in school history.

“I never would have thought at the beginning of the season that we would have a shot at this,” Eagle senior lineman Josh Hoover said following Saturday’s victory. “I’m so proud of these guys. The stuff that we’ve overcome and the spots that we had to fill…this was out of my radar this year. We are not the biggest, we are not the fastest or the strongest but we play as a team. And that is the most important thing.”

Longenecker agreed.

“It’s amazing,” he said of reaching the finals. “It’s just crazy. At the beginning of the year I don’t know how many people thought we could do this. But it’s just so awesome. It’s surreal.”

Originally scheduled for Eagle Stadium, Saturday’s game was moved to Manheim Central’s turf due to Thursday’s snowstorm. Both offenses adapted quickly, as they found themselves locked in a 21-21 shoot-out late in the first half.

The Bearcats got it started as senior QB Seth Bernstein hit Rob Rideout for a 49-yard touchdown pass on the game’s fourth play. Cocalico countered with a one-yard TD run by Palm to tie the score, but they were only getting started.

Bernstein and Rideout hooked up again on York’s next series on a 23-yard TD pass but the Eagles answered again when Palm used play-action to find Austin Landers behind the defense on a play that went 34 yards to knot the game at 14-14.

Then after the Cocalico defense forced the game’s first punt, the Eagles went up 21-14 as Palm went around right end, weaving through defenders on his way to a 34-yard touchdown run. However, Bernstein knotted the game again with a nine-yard scamper with 54 seconds left in the half.

It seemed as though that would be the half-time score, but after Cocalico’s Ronald Zahm ripped off a nice return on the ensuing kickoff to the Eagle 44, Gingrich reached into his bag of tricks and it seemed to turn the Eagles’ fortunes their way for good. Carson Nash, the Eagles’ back-up quarterback, took a hand-off before stopping and launching a high-arcing spiral downfield to a wide-open Ben Sola, who hauled it in at the 15 and waltzed in for the go-ahead score with 30 seconds left in the half.

“We run that play every week in practice one time,” Gingrich said. “So we’ve run it 12 or 13 times all year in practice, and we might have completed it two or three times.”

Fortunately, it worked, and sparked the Eagles going forward. It was the first of five-straight touchdowns by Cocalico, who built the lead to 55-21 by early in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles needed just three plays to hit paydirt after taking the second half kickoff. Starting at the 41-yard line, inside power runs by Longenecker of 12 and 26 yards took it all the way to the York 21. Cody Shay then gave Longenecker a breather and broke one off left tackle for a 21-yard score to make it 35-21.

Then, after the Eagle defense stuffed York on a fourth down play at the Cocalico 34, the Eagles went 66 yards on four running plays as Palm capped it with a 29-yard TD run with 5:52 to go to put his team up 42-21.

“We started really pounding the ball outside and then cutting to the middle, and they couldn’t do anything about it,” Longenecker said of the second-half explosion. “I think we changed up on them really quick. Noah was making really good reads, our line was giving us a great push and we played our offense…it worked out for us.”

Cocalico added one more score before the end of the third when Longenecker broke off a 56-yard touchdown run to make it 49-21. And the Eagles capped off their scoring surge after Zahm’s interception gave them the ball at midfield late in the third. The Eagles then moved 52 yards in 10 plays as Zahm scored off a toss from Palm with 8:16 left to up the advantage to 55-21.

“We got a good push,” Gingrich said of his running game. “Our offensive line really got off the ball tonight.”

Stewart got one score back for the Bearcats with 5:29 to go when he hauled in a 26-yard touchdown pass from Bernstein, who threw for 158 yards and four scores on the night.

The teams then traded scores in the final three minutes as Palm added his final TD of the afternoon on a 44-yard run before Bernstein connected with Anthony Jamison on a 53-yard bomb with 1:48 to go to complete the scoring.

“Coach talked all week about chopping down the tree…how you don’t do it in one swing,” Hoover said when asked about the success of the Cocalico running game. “You just got to keep pounding and pounding and pounding. And in the end, we chopped down the tree.”

This Friday’s winner not only will capture the District title, it will advance to the State semifinals to face the West Chester Rustin-Upper Dublin winner either Nov. 30 or Dec. 1 at a site and time to be determined.

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