BY JEFF FALK
LEBANON – Just because something hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it can’t. But when it finally does, it really has a way of bringing things into perspective.
Two things occurred last night that have rarely – if ever – happened before in the annals of Lebanon County sports history.
First, the Lebanon High football team clinched a District Three Class AAAA playoff berth a year after going winless. And second, quarterback Mark Pyles became the first local scholastic football player ever to have a hand in – either running or throwing – every offensive touchdown his team scored in a season.
Exactly how those two feats are related, one can draw his or her own conclusion.
On Friday night at Lebanon Alumni Stadium, Pyles threw for six more touchdowns and ran for another as Lebanon mauled Elizabethtown 45-17 in its regular-season finale. After E-town had whittled a 20-3 deficit down to ten points just before halftime, Pyles hooked up with favorite target Jeremy De La Cruz late in the third quarter to push Lebanon’s advantage back to 32-10.
With the victory, Lebanon, which went 0-10 in 2012, completed its amazing turnaround 7-3 overall and 5-2 in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. The Cedars will travel to Dallastown next Friday at 7 p.m., for the opening round of the District Three Class AAAA playoffs.
The Bears slipped to 3-7 on the fall and 2-5 in the section.
“It normally doesn’t happen,” said Lebanon head coach Gerry Yonchiuk of going from 0-10 to the playoffs. “I think we had a great belief in our guys. Our kids play inspired. They don’t quit.
“There were signs early on that we were going to be a good football team,” Yonchiuk added. “But you never know. I thought we had a chance of having a winning season. But a seventh win is huge.”
“Let’s not talk about last year,” said Pyles. “Let’s talk about this year. I haven’t forgotten about it, but it’s in the back of my mind. We’re still looking to go 8-3.
“Coach always says having fun is the most important thing,” added Pyles. “But you can’t have fun if you don’t win.”
Lebanon High scored 45 offensive touchdowns in 2013 – the Cedars also scored a defensive touchdown on a Jeremy De La Cruz fumble return. Pyles threw 30 touchdown passes and ran for 15 touchdowns.
It’s a feat that probably has only been accomplished a handful of times, anywhere.
“I didn’t know that,” said the humble Pyles. “I just make plays and get people riled up. And get them in the zone. I’ve just got to get them going.”
“I had no idea,” said Yonchiuk. “He’s (Pyles) just an amazing players. He’s so physical and so humble. He’s a class act. He’s going to be a seven-time captain in three sports at Lebanon High School.
“He’s just such a good athlete,” continued Yonchiuk. “He’s a running back. But we put him at quarterback when he was a sophomore and he just kept improving his throwing. We expect a lot of him. The kid’s been phenomenal. He’s got to be considered for the Big 33 and all-state.”
In opening its 20-3 lead, Lebanon High got three Pyles-to-Nick Negron scoring passes. The first was a 74-yard hook-up which came on the second snap of the game.
Then after the Bears turned a Cedar fumble into a field goal, Pyles and Negron collaborated on an 85-yarder. Number Three came from 11 yards away and capped a nine-play, 68-yard march.
“I told the guys we would not say the ‘p-word’ (playoffs) all week,” said Yonchiuk. “No, we didn’t talk about it at all. But I’m just so happy for these guys and the staff. What a way to finish it.
“I knew we’d be much improved,” continued Yonchiuk. “I wasn’t sure how the season was going to go, but I knew we weren’t going to go winless. Last year’s guys didn’t quit. This shows they (his players) have great character and they want to win. There’s just such a tremendous amount of happiness.”
“After last year and how we turned it around, it feels amazing,” said Pyles. “We’ve got another week to go, so we have to keep our focus. It was my last game here, my 20th game at Alumni Stadium, so I wanted to go out with a bang.”
Pyles’ touchdown tosses to De La Cruz came within 4:17 of each other late in the third stanza. Pyles hit De La Cruz for a 72-yard score that made it 26-10, and then found him with a four-yard pass that upped Lebanon’s lead to 22 points.
“Last year most of it was inexperience,” said Pyles. “And all those kids got experience. Our experience is just catching up with us and it’s starting to take hold.”
With the Cedars ahead 32-17, Lebanon scored the only two touchdowns of the final quarter. Pyles ran one in from 15 yards out and hit De La Cruz for his third receiving touchdown of the evening, this one a 10-yarder.
Pyles concluded his final home game 21 of 33 for 477 yards and an interception. De La Cruz hauled in nine aerials for 157 yards, while Negron collected five passes for 222 yards.
The Cedars piled up 578 total yards and held the Bears to a paltry 233. With sophomore Malik Hunter leading the way with six sacks, Lebanon High limited Elizabethtown to 27 yards on 43 rushes.
“I’m proud of our defense,” said Yonchiuk. “We’ve come on. We don’t break. We’re improving and getting physical.
“I thought our defense played tough,” Yonchiuk added. “We came after their quarterback. There in the second half we just kept coming after him.”