ASHLAND – In many ways it was the end to a beginning. And what a beginning it was.
It was the kind of beginning that has on-lookers anticipating what is yet to come. It was the type of beginning on which programs of excellence are founded.
On Saturday afternoon, the Elco football team’s surprisingly successful season ended with a 42-28 loss at North Schuylkill. That the contest wasn’t as close as the final score indicated really didn’t seem to matter, because of what had transpired over the nine games prior.
North Schuylkill, a classic, fundamentally sound Class AA coal-region squad, established an early advantage at the line of scrimmage and turned it into dominance as the contest wore on. Employing a punishing rushing attack, the Spartans scored on their first two possessions, then lengthened their lead to 24-0 just before halftime.
But for the Raiders, they seemingly put the outcome behind them before it became official. Under first-year head coach Bob Miller, Elco went 6-4 overall, despite the fact that Miller had taken over the reigns just weeks before, and despite the fact that it had lost its starting quarterback from a year ago at roughly the same time Miller took over.
The same Elco squad that had gone 3-7 in 2011 entered the final week of its season with an outside shot at qualifying for the District Three Class AAA playoffs. North Schuylkill closed out its campaign 7-3.
“It was a success,” said Miller. “We had a successful season. Not only did we change our style of play, but we also changed it in terms of wins, team unity and chemistry in the locker room. And there were a heck of a lot of smiles coming to practice everyday.
“We may have performed a little above what I expected,” Miller continued. “Just considering the change in terminology, getting to know the coaches, having little time to prepare. That’s a lot on those kids’ minds. But we knew they could be successful.”
North Schuylkill’s lead actually reached 30-0 early in the third quarter, before the Raiders finally got their feet beneath them. Elco pieced together an 11-play, 66-yard possession that culminated with senior Adam Shoemaker’s two-yard, touchdown burst, with 4:08 of the third quarter remaining.
The key plays in the march were pass completions from freshman quarterback Jeff Martin to Shoemaker and Jake Stager.
“We knew going in that they’re real physical, really strong and that their backs were really good,” said Miller of the Spartans. “Look at the size of those kids. We didn’t execute in the first half. And they (the Spartams) were ready to play.
“At halftime, I told them (his players) I fell in love with them for a whole season, I’m not going to fall out of love with them because of one half,” Miller added. “That first half wasn’t indicative of the way we played. The underclassmen have some big shoes to fill.”
Facing a 29-point deficit, Martin hooked up with Stager for a 31-yard scoring play that drew Elco to within 36-14. But again North Schuylkill answered the Raiders’ touchdown with one of its own, to make it 42-14.
Elco added a pair of Martin touchdown passes in the last 2:06 to make the final score respectable. First the freshmen hit Stager for an 18-yarder, then he connected with Shoemaker for a 21-yard strike.
“We took the approach that it doesn’t matter what’s ahead of you if you don’t win,” added Miller. “We won our last three games, and every week was a playoff week for these guys. The beginning of next seaason starts when we hit the weight room in December.”
North Schuylkill took it to the Raiders up-front, right out of the chute. The Spartans drove their first two possessions 73 yards and 62 yards, all on running plays, to get a pair of touchdowns out of hard-running Matt Gownley.
The Spartans accentuated their dominance with a couple of two-point conversions from Gownley.
Then a couple of minutes before intermission, North Schuylkill’s Ehtan Motsney ripped off a 73-yarder down the right sidelines to make it 24-zip.
“These guys improved a ton,” said Miller of his troops. “There were games early in the season, when we got down (on the scoreboard), and the kids were dead. But the more they invested each week, the more they cared, the more they developed a winning demeanor.”