BY JEFF FALK
CAMP HILL – In a big race, you never want to give the other guy a head start. Especially if your opponent is going to refuse to slow down.
On Friday night in the quarterfinals of the District Three Class AAA playoffs, Red Land started fast and the Palmyra football team simply couldn’t keep up. At Cedar Cliff’s West Shore Stadium, the Patriots tallied two touchdowns in the game’s first 6:18 and never trailed in a 56-28 victory over the Cougars.
Red Land scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions – and eight of 11 overall – to open a 35-14 halftime lead, and amassed 545 yards of total offense. The Cougars’ inability to control the Patriot offense overshadowed a 330-yard rushing and three-touchdown game by Palmyra star tailback Preston Bare.
With the loss, Palmyra ended one of its most successful seasons ever at 9-3. The Cougars were coming off a three-overtime triumph over Manheim Central in their first playoff appearance in program history.
Red Land, the 12th seeded team in the Class AAA field, improved to 7-5 overall and barged into next Friday’s District Three semifinals.
“I felt like if we could’ve played better defensively, we could’ve given them a better football game,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope of the Patriots. “I need to look at the film, but I suspect we didn’t control the line of scrimmage, and we missed some tackles. But give them credit, (Red Land tailback, John) Ford is a legitimate player.”
“We just got off to a slow start,” said Bare. “We know we can beat these guys. We did it in ninth grade without three of our best players. But we couldn’t stop them. I knew I was having a good game running the ball, but I could’ve played better on defense.”
For a while, Palmyra did a pretty good job of playing catch-up, at least offensively. But the Cougars simply couldn’t put enough scoreboard pressure on the Patriots.
Twice, Palmyra pulled to within seven points of the lead.
First, Bare ripped off a 25-yard run with 4:05 remaining in the opening stanza to get Palmyra within 14-7. Then with 5:39 of the second quarter left, Bare rambled 39 yards for the touchdown that made it 21-14.
Bare’s 165 yards rushing in the first half pushed him over the 2,000-yard mark for his senior season.
“What we needed to do is get two stops in-a-row,” said Pope. “And we never did. We needed that one to bring it close.”
Down 21 points at the break, Palmyra recovered a Red Land fumble on the second-half kickoff. Five plays later, on a fourth-down-and-five, Palmyra quarterback Mason Laudermilch hit Jordan Harro with a 12-yard scoring strike.
That made it 35-21, and the Cougars forced a punt on Red Land’s next possession. But Palmyra muffed the Patriot punt and Red Land took advantage of its opportunity to score a touchdown and push it back to a three-possession game.
“I told our guys at halftime, ‘It’s only three scores,” said Pope. “‘We’re not out of it. It’s only three scores.'”
“Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect,” Pope continued. “If you would’ve told me we were going to give up 56 points, I wouldn’t have believed you. And if you would’ve told me Preston was going to run for 300 yards and we were going to lose, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
The outcome wasn’t decided until the early parts of the final stanza. Bare’s third touchdown run, a 51-yarder on the final snap of the third quarter, moved the Cougars to within 42-28.
But the Patriots added two more scores in the fourth period.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” said Pope. “For all the teams that make the playoffs, the season’s going to end with a loss, except for one. I feel special just to have had the opportunity to coach them. They’re a great group.
“It was just a great experience,” Pope added. “It’s down in the books. It can’t ever be taken away.”
A three-and-out by Palmyra on the opening possession and an interception on its second helped fuel Red Land’s early 14-0 lead.
More than 500 of Red Land’s total yards came on the ground. Patriot sophomore tailback John Ford rushed for 270 of those yards and scored six of his team’s eight touchdowns.
Paced by Bare’s 36 carries, Palmyra piled up 387 total yards of its own.