BY JEFF FALK
Photos BY MATTHEW BERDINKA
FREDERICKSBURG – It was one of those rare intra-County clashes that oozed playoff implications on both sides. And for three quarters, it looked and felt like a playoff game.
But ultimately, the local club best suited for the postseason imposed its will on the other.
On Friday night at Fred Gahres Stadium, Palmyra finished strong and put away Northern Lebanon 35-14. Employing their athleticism and bruising ground game, the Cougars posted the contest’s final 22 points, after the Vikings had opened a 14-13 edge early in the third stanza.
With the non-leauge win, Palmyra, the 11th ranked Class AAA team in District Three, improved to 8-1 on the campaign. Northern Lebanon, which entered the game with an outside shot at qualifying for the same District Three tournament, fell to 4-5.
“We feel more secure about our playoff position now,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “For them it was an important game because they were 4-4 and still had a chance to get in. Yeah, it was an intense game.
“I think all of them are dogfights,” Pope continued. “It’s close until the engine gets going and until someone exerts their dominance. Just like Preston (Palmyra running back Bare) at the end. He really pinned his ears back and ran hard.”
“It was our seniors’ last home game,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Roy Wall. “We didn’t put any more pressure on them than that. Obviously if we would’ve won it would’ve helped our playoff chances.”
With the outcome very much in doubt, what ultimately swung the momentum to the Cougar side was a fade pattern down the right sideline.
Down 14-13, Palmyra quarterback Mason Laudermilch hit Jordan Harro with a 56-yard ‘go’ that gave the Cougars the lead for good, with 31 seconds left in the third period. It was Harro’s third receiving touchdown of the evening, and it seemed to pick up the Palmyra bench and spark the Cougars’ running game.
“I think we all knew we had to expand on the passing game,” said Pope. “I thought Trinity (the prior week) really exploited that. We worked on sprinting Mason out.’
“We played for three quarters,” said Wall. “They beat us. They scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. We just wore down.”
What Laudermilch and Harro started, Bare finished. While the Vikings did an admiral job of bottling up the senior tailback most of the game, Bare broke loose in the fourth.
His 11-yard touchdown burst with 10:33 left in the game pushed Palmyra ahead 28-14. And his two-yard blast with 3:46 to go placed the final touches on the triumph.
In the final analysis, Palmyra outgained Northern Lebanon 409-233. The Vikings rushed the ball 36 times for 122 yards.
“They are a dangerous football team,” said Pope of the Vikings. “We knew coming in that we were going to get their best effort. You don’t see the option as much any more and you can’t duplicate it in practice. You can’t get the speed and precision in practice.”
“They’re solid,” said Wall of the Cougars. “They have a nice running game. But their defense was the difference.”
Northern Lebanon erased a 13-6 halftime deficit by taking the second-half kickoff 70 yards in eight plays. Quarterback Tanner Dresch’s two-yard keeper gave the Vikings their second lead of the game.
“I thought our defense was pretty good,” said Pope. “I think a lot of their offense was on big plays. That’s the thing with the option. It’s faster than you can simulate in practice.”
“We played well,” said Wall. “Look at their numbers. Look at our numbers. The defense was the difference.”
Harro’s initial touchdown came on a fourth-down-and-12 on the Cougars’ opening drive. But the speedy senior receiver turned a ‘bubble screen’ into a 30-yard touchdown reception from Laudermilch and a 6-0 lead.
The Vikings answered that one with 3:04 left in the first, after a reverse pass from Ian Betts to Corey Wall put them in business at the Cougar two-yard-line. Wall did the honors a snap later, as Northern Lebanon assumed a 7-6 edge.
Palmyra’s 13-6 halftime lead came courtesy of Laudermilch and Harro turning a busted play into a touchdown. On a fourth-down-and-seven snap, a rolling Laudermilch found Harro in the corner of the end zone for 11 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought they (his players) handled it well,” said Pope of his club’s initial loss of the season a week earlier. “We looked at the video and saw where we could improve.
“We need to make sure we’re not holding (Palmyra was flagged for five first-half holding calls),” Pope continued. “When you’re blocking you’ve got to keep your feet moving.”
After a slow start – which included a first-half fumble, Bare finished with 152 yards on 26 carries. The senior tailback carried every play during the Cougars’ eight-play, 50-yard march for their final tally.
“We tried to give him a little break in the first half,” said Pope of his star. “He wasn’t hitting the hole real hard. He works hard. Sometimes you don’t realize how much he’s on the field.
“These guys, you can almost tell when it’s (a fumble) going to happen,” Pope added. “You can see when they start to get tired, and they lose their grip on the ball.”
Harro finished his evening with six catches for 130 yards. Laudermilch went 10-fo-17 for 195 yards.
Palmyra, which has secured a spot in the District Three playoffs for the first time in school history, ends its regular season at home on Friday versus Milton Hershey. Northern Lebanon travels to Pequea Valley for its season finale.
“We had our ups and downs,” said Northern Lebanon senior quarterback Tanner Dresch. “The beginning of the season wasn’t very good. We had our highs and lows. We want to try to get a win to end the season.”
“Yeah,” said Wall, when asked if a win was necessary to make it a successful season. “We wanted to win. Last week, we lost on an extra point. Tonight we played three quarters. We’ve got to play four quarters.”