BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS BY LORI MESSERSMITH
WITMER – Around the Lebanon High football team they’re shouting about a .500 season.
They’re also talking about a winning year.
And if one listens carefully enough, under their breath their whispering the ‘p-word’ – playoffs.
On Friday night, the Cedars’ remarkable turnaround from a win-less 2012 continued to gain momentum, as the Cedars registered a sturdy 34-14 win at Conestoga Valley. Lebanon High used some clutch big plays to run out to a 20-7 lead, and then turned in one of its stingiest defensive efforts of the season.
With senior quarterback Mark Pyles throwing for three touchdowns and running for two more, Lebanon improved to 5-3 on the year and 3-2 in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. The Cedars will need to split their two remaining regular season games – home tilts against Lampeter-Strasburg and Elizabethtown – to finish with a winning campaign, and win both to have a shot at the District Three postseason.
Even considering those scenarios is the farthest cry from 0-10.
The loss dropped Conestoga Valley to 2-6 on the fall and 2-3 in the section.
“Considering the loss (48-0 to Cocalico) and that we didn’t play well, I was pleased with the effort,” said Lebanon head coach Gerry Yonchiuk. “It solidifies a .500 season. Goal Two is a winning season and Goal Three is the playoffs.
“We’re certainly not worrying about it (the postseason) yet because we don’t have a winning season yet,” added Yonchiuk. “But we like our position.”
“Since my freshmen season, we haven’t had a winning season,” said Pyles, who was part of seven wins during the three seasons prior to this one. “Getting this five wins, it’s a huge confidence builder. Now we want to get two more.”
In taking that 20-7 lead, Lebanon High scored three touchdown from late-down snaps.
The Cedars’ opening possession, a seven-play 66- yard march, culminated with Pyles scoring on a third-and-goal from the nine yard line. In the second quarter, Pyles connected with Luke Fureman for a touchdown, on a fourth-down-and-goal from the 11.
Then with 1:11 left in the first half – two minutes after the Buckskins had pulled to within 14-7 – Pyles hit a wide open Jeremy De La Cruz for an 18-yard-scoring strike on a fourth-down-and-ten situation.
“It’s huge,” said Yonchiuk. “It’s a different ball game if we don’t get those fourth downs, and they weren’t short plays. I thought we did some good stuff.
“At the beginning of the game we said, ‘We want the ball,'” continued Yonchiuk. “We want to go down and score, especially after we were shut out last week. To get that touchdown right away, it was important to get that confidence back.”
“They’re obviously huge,” said Pyles of the big plays on late downs. “We have play makers who can make a difference. That ball to Luke Fureman, I don’t know how he caught it. It was behind him. But that’s just making plays.
“Scoring on the opening possession, that was just building momentum,” Pyles added. “That’s what that was.”
A weakness over the last three seasons, on this night the Cedar defense was a bright spot. Lebanon limited Conestoga Valley to 75 yards on the ground and 226 total yards, while the Cedars created four takeaways.
The Cedars really only surrendered one big play – a 52-yard pass for a touchdown – but it came with 9:40 left in the ball game.
“I thought they played real well,” said Yonchiuk of his charges. “We played especially well defensively. We ran to the football. The guys were going to the ball well tonight. The big goal was to improve defensively.
“Our defensive effort was outstanding,” added Yonchiuk. “We wanted to be as physical as we can be. Mark (Pyles at linebacker) stepped up into the hole. He made some big hits. He’s always going forward.”
“Coming off a big loss,” said Pyles, “we knew how big this was. We had a lot to play for.”
Lebanon High scored the first touchdown of the second half, to open its advantage to 28-7. With 5:53 to go in the third quarter, Pyles hit Nick Negron with a bubble screen, and the speedy Negron turned it into a 32-yard scoring play to the right pylon.
The Cedars capped the evening with 6:23 remaining in the final quarter, when Pyles scored on another nine-yard waltz to push their lead back to 20 points. The run finished off an eight-play, 56-yard drive.
“The first game we cramped up and Cedar Crest out played us,” said Yonchiuk. “The other two teams (Manheim Central and Cocalico) were better than us. Last week, we played sloppy. I thought if we played our best game, we could’ve played with them (the Eagles). Tonight they (his players) answered the bell.”
“I was looking to improve throughout the season,” said Pyles of his team. “After the first game we lose, we played well and won three straight. And we knew we could play with anyone. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
Pyles was his usual dominant self, on both sides of the ball. Defensively he seemed to be around the ball all night.
Offensively, Pyles completed 14 of 27 throws for 309 yards. He ran 24 times for 152 yards, as the Cedars rolled up 507 yards of total offense.