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BY CHRIS GEORGE

Nobody was quite sure how long it’s been since the Ephrata football team last beat Elco, but on a beautiful Friday night in Myerstown the Mounts did just that.

Riding a new QB after their starter went out last week, and the legs of their lead back Andre Weidman, who ran up over 130 yards on the ground, including two fantastic TD runs, and some untimely turnovers by the Raiders, the Mounts headed back down 322 with a convincing 28-7 victory. 

Coming out of halftime 7-7, the Raiders, led by Luke Williams’ 24-carry, 123-yard performance, and QB Cole Thomas, seemingly had stolen the momentum away from the visitors before the end of the first half. However, 21 unanswered points put the game out of reach with ten minutes to play in the fourth quarter in an anticlimactic finish.

The Raiders stormed out of the gates early in the night, behind a raucous student section decked out in a Red White Blue USA theme.  After Rheece Shuey’s opening kickoff for Elco, the Raiders got going on the defensive side of things, with LB Aidan Fritsch, who had three tackles on Ephrata’s opening drive. Fritsch then capped it off with a sneaky interception, jumping in front of a Mount’s wideout and taking it back deep into Ephrata territory.

Unfortunately for Elco, they couldn’t capitalize and committed what was to be the first of many uncharacteristic turnovers on the night, with Thomas getting picked off at the ten-yard line, for the first time this season.

Ephrata didn’t waste much time after that, embarking on a solid drive that was looking to stall out around midfield, when newly minted sophomore QB Sam McCracken found wideout Jeremiah Knowles on a high arcing bomb and a 40-yard TD reception to open the scoring.  Elco continued to struggle offensively for its next couple possessions, as it did all night, not able to generate their normal game-controlling drives with many first downs.

However, the Raiders’ defense kept Weidman and crew in check with some back-and-forth punts, and when the second quarter began, Coach Bob Miller seemed to have a couple tricks up his sleeve. Some adept game management, along with timeouts, no-huddle, slow huddle, and an overall change of pace offense, put the Mounts on their heels and got ELCO back to what they do best, grinding out first downs, and taking the heart of their opponent’s defense. 

Typically, Elco hits the scoreboard by rolling into end zones with their potent running attack, but this drive, which ate up almost the entire secondnd quarter, was capped off by a beautiful throw down the middle from Thomas to, once again Fritsch, their do-it-all tight end, who did an awesome job of high pointing the catch.

Coming out at the half, it looked as though ELCO was ready to repeat their recent dominance over the Mounts in this matchup, although last year’s game in the covid shortened season was a tight finish on the Mounts home field.  

Unfortunately for Elco, the Raiders graduated QB Braden Bohannon off that team, who is lighting it up at LVC currently, while the other hero from that game a year ago, was the young freshman phenom Jake Williams, and younger brother of Luke Williams, and the lightning part of the ‘Thunder & Lightning’ running back duo.

Coach Miller made no mention of not having J. Williams, nor any excuses at all for the disappointing finish. But losing a young explosive playmaker like that is hard to fill.

Thomas has started off the season strong, filling the big shoes of Bohannon at QB.   ELCO hopes to have the younger Williams back in a few weeks if he progresses from an injury, and in the meantime newcomers, Jaxon Groy and Elliot Kreider will continue to grow into their new roles and help fill the void.

Some stalled drives to start the 3rd quarter along with some penalties, as Bob Miller noted, “they shot themselves in the foot” and inconsistent execution, gave the Mounts too many opportunities and they eventually broke through with a long 42-yard run by Weidman to take them inside the 10-yard line of Elco.

On a huge fourth-down play, late in the third quarter, a pass from McCracken to Stidham just over the goal line gave coach Kris Miller’s squad the edge they needed and they never looked back.  

Elco looked to recover and while moving the ball on their next possession, facing a third and long, the turnover bug struck again, with defensive lineman Deric Hoover picking off Thomas, discarding a would-be tackler, and racing 40 yards for a gut punch TD that seemed to put the game out of reach and blow the lid off the Mountie fans and bench,

For Hoover, he mentioned it was the “first time in his life he’d ever carried a ball on the field”, even dating back to youth football, but the defensive lineman, in his number-61 jersey, looked all the part of a nimble running back, darting to his first career touchdown and eventually into the arms of his crazy and elated Mounts teammates once he hit the sidelines. 

A fumble on the next possession for Elco, as the Raiders tried to make a late push, led to a sweet Weidman 40-yard scamper that cemented the win, with almost ten minutes to play in the game.

K. Miller’s squad ran out the clock after another Raider fumble, and the former LVC standout, and Northern Lebanon two-time section championship assistant coach, came back to Lebanon County to achieve one of the program’s biggest wins. His words were quite simple “Big win. Big win. Our defense played great and the offense seemed to gain more and more confidence as the game went on. We’ve lost to these guys by a combined 11 points in the past three seasons. Tonight our kids dug deep and found a way.”

For the Raiders, it’s back to the drawing board, although Coach B. Miller seemed to have a firm grasp on how the Raiders would need to overcome these early setbacks, now 1-2 on the season, after missing their opener which was postponed till November. Coach B. Miller noted, “a lack of focus, with poor execution on Tuesday resulting in a poor performance on Friday.” 

B. Miller also noted that his group needed to do a better job on their “football priorities.”  Although the Raiders were down a man or two, once again, Coach B. Miller made no mention of missing players and focused solely on his team and not worrying about their opponents, but what they can do to improve and clean up the mistakes. Miller sees his kids continuing to play with “a lot of heart and emotion, but just needing a better focus,” to accomplish that goal. 

In recapping the game, Raider coach B. Miller was quick to heap plenty of praise and respect on Ephrata’s squad and their coach K. Miller for their effort and execution and mentioned having an immense appreciation for the job they’ve done there and their impressive turnaround. 

K. Miller was quick to thank his assistants and knew they had accomplished something big. “We know our section is tough, obviously L-S and others, but for now, all we can do is put ourselves in position and take care of our business now. And we’ve done that. One bus stop at a time, and all focus on Columbia next week.” 

Miller’s philosophy is ‘win all day, in and out of the classroom”, and the town of Ephrata seems to be fervently behind their Mounts and its newfound football success.

As for the Raiders, things don’t get easier as they’ll host perennial tough-out Donegal, who has been one of the most consistent squads in Section Three for the past few seasons. The Raiders are lucky enough to get the Indians at home next Friday night, which will surely be a test of whether they can fulfill their dreams of another district playoff berth and back-to-back section championships.

It’s still early, and there’s a lot of football to be played.  If the Raiders have shown anything the past few seasons, it’s that they will grind you out, game after game, first down after first down, and give you everything they have. That formula may be exactly what they need to get them closer to reaching their 2021 goals.

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