BY JEFF FALK
MANHEIM – After the tactical nonsense and game-plan secrets had been exhausted, it came down to guts, believing in themselves and staying the course. And the right foot of a one-time soccer player.
In its first playoff game ever, the Palmyra football team engaged in one of the most thrilling and memorable contests in program history. The Cougars invaded the home of perhaps the most storied team in the area – Manheim Central – and came away with a heart-pounding 34-31 triple overtime vicotry on Friday night.
At Elden Rettew Field, senior kicker Matt Smoluk’s 25-yard field goal was true, after the Barons had fumbled away their possession in the third extra-session. It was Smoluk who had sent the game into ‘Bonus Football’ with an earlier 20-yard field goal, with 35 seconds remaining in regulation.
The win propelled the 13th-seeded Cougars to 9-2 overall and into next week’s District Three Class AAA quarterfinals against 12th-seeded Red Land, which beat Hershey 42-41 in 3OTs. The contest is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m. at Cedar Cliff High School’s West Shore Stadium.
Manheim Central, which has won more District Three championships – 16 – than any other Class AAA program, completed its year at 8-3.
“Both teams played great,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “They’re (the Barons) a great football team. We stuck to our guns and we didn’t waver in what we do. And we trusted in each other.”
“Basically I just blocked everything out,” explained Smoluk. “I just concentrated on kicking the ball, nothing else. We were all excited for this game. I got a little nervous at the end, but I just went out there and did it.”
In the initial overtime session the teams matched ten-yard scoring runs. Senior tailback Preston Bare, who was held in check most of the evening, held up Palmyra’s end of the bargain by taking a sprint draw from rolling quarterback Mason Laudermilch and bursting through the middle of the Baron defense.
Laudermilch hooked up with receiver Jordan Harro in the right corner of the end zone on a third-and-11 call to give Palmyra a 31-24 advantage in the second OT. But the Barons responded with a touchdown pass of their own to send the contest to a third – and what would prove to be decisive – overtime.
I’m just elated,” said Pope. “I’m so happy for our kids. They way it occurred, it was like a dream. I was just thrilled to play them (the Barons) because they are the standard in AAA. It was just a great opportunity to come in here and beat them.”
Before getting the ball with less than six minutes to play, Palmyra had but one first down to its credit. But down 17-14, the Cougars drove 62 yards on 14 plays to come up with Smoluk’s tying field goal.
Palmyra executed three huge plays in the drive – Bare’s nine-yard run out of punt formation on fourth down, a 20-yard bubble screen to Harro on a thir-down-and-11 and a 26-yard completion between Laudermilch and Harro that took the Cougars to MC’s three-yard line.
“When it came down to the very end,” said Smoluk, “Coach just told me to stay warm and stay loose.”
“This is our first playoff appearance, so no I’ve never been inovled with anything like this before,” said Pope. “The way it happened, it was truly amazing. I’m just really happy right now.”
Despite their early offensive woes, the Cougars led 14-10 at the break, thanks to a couple of big plays.
Trailing 7-0 in the middle of the second period, Cougar defensive back George Robertson stepped in front of a Manheim receiver, picked off the pass and raced 77 yards down the right sideline to tie the score. Then 2:05 later, Palmyra blocked a Baron punt and Bare picked it up and rambled 23 yards into the end zone for a 14-7 lead.
“We looked more at what happened with Milton Hershey,” said Pope of a regular-season-ending 43-26 setback to the Spartans. “We didn’t want a repeat of that. We talked about intensity, not turning the football over and winning the special teams battle.”
Manheim Central converted a Cougar cough-up into a 7-0 lead 4:21 into the game. And a 27-yard field goal by Baron kicker Bryant Myer pulled Central to within 14-10, 45 ticks befor halftime.
The score remained that way until early in the fourth period when Manheim Central drove 79 yards in 13 snaps to grab a 17-14 edge.
“In overtime we came out in the spread (offense),” said Pope. “We got away from that because of the way Preston runs the ball in the ‘I’ (formation). They (the Barons) haven’t seen a lot of that from us, and we had to spread them out. I think it changed up the pace and the feel for their defense.”
Palmyra’s initial first down of the game didn’t come until 2:02 of the third quarter was remaining. Manheim Central bottled up Bare and the Cougar running game, surrendering a mere 120 yards of total offense. Bare carried 20 times for 65 yards, while Harro caught six passes for 67 yards.
But on this night, the Jon Hicks-led Cougar defense was stellar as well. Palmyra limited the Barons to 247 total yards and came up with five takeaways.
“At first it seemed like I liked soccer more,” said Smoluk. “But now I’ve gotten more into football and I’d like to continue to kick in college.”