PHOTOS BY LORI MESSERSMITH
MYERSTOWN – All the Palmyra football team wanted out of Tyler Gallagher was for him to manage the game – execute, limit mistakes and keep his side out of trouble.
Gallagher did that. And then after he settled in, he took over.
On Friday night at Elco Stadium, Gallagher did more than just fill in admirably for injured starting quarterback Michael Lewis. His play sparked the Cougars to a 41-30 triumph over Elco.
Gallagher completed 12 of 20 pass attempts for 236 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. While Gallagher was on target and on time all evening long, his receivers require credit for turning short throws into long gains.
Another key element of the victory was Palmyra’s ability to finish the game, an aspect which had plagued it while losing 20 of its previous 21 contests. After Elco had opened a 21-7 margin early in the second period, Palmyra outscored the Raiders 20-6 over the final 8:41.
The outcome evened both squads’ non-league marks at 1-1. The regular-season gridiron meeting was the first between the two Lebanon County schools in nearly 30 years.
“Michael got injured in the East Pennsboro game, and Tyler had to step in,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “The next day, we met at length. We decided we wanted to get Tyler into the starting job. Initially, we talked about managing the game. We told him to get in there and keep settled.
“He had a lot of poise,” continued Pope. “He played quarterback before. He settled in and had a great night. He did a wonderful job. I’m really happy for him. He did what was asked of him.”
“He did a good job,” said Elco head coach Bob Miller of Gallagher. “He got the ball where it needed to be, when it needed to be there. Then his receivers did a great job of turning small things into big things.
“They’re (the Cougars) an incredibly physical football team,” added Miller. “You can see how hard they run the football and attack the line of scrimmage.”
Staring down a 24-21 deficit, Gallagher engineered a ten-play, 89-yard drive to give the Cougars their first lead of the night, and one they would never relinquished. Gallagher capped off the possession by hitting Peter Robertson with a 24-yard curl that he took to the house.
Then 2:09 later, on the heels of a Raider three-and-out, Gallagher found Carl Reigle with a middle screen that turned into a 64-yard catch-and run. The score upped the Cougars’ advantage to 34-24 with 6:32 left.
“I think it’s an important win,” said Pope. “Winning games gives you hope. Winning games helps your drive. Football is a tough sport, especially in practice. It takes a special type of individual to play. When you win, it helps build your intensity.
“I’m not quite sure (if conditioning was a factor),” added Pope. “We had some cramping, but that’s not really related to conditioning. We’re very proud of our conditioning. I think they (the Raiders) were a little tired at the end. I think we are in great shape.”
“We didn’t finish the game,” said Miller. “We didn’t finish the first half. We didn’t do a very good job of maintaining discipline. We had too many penalties because I put in too much (to the game plan) and the kids were confused.
“Our kids were valiant all the way through,” Miller added. “It was a matter of mental mistakes today. They (the Cougars) had more trouble with cramps. We’re in shape.”
With 3:08 to go, the Raiders kept their waning hopes alive when junior quarterback Jeff Martin tossed a 41-yard touchdown pass to senior Dustin Miller, to pull Elco to within 34-30. But it took Palmyra exactly 50 seconds to respond, as tailback Alon Rhette scampered 40 yards off left tackle to push the Cougars’ lead back to 11.
“That’s all a part of executing the passing game,” said Pope of his team’s yards-after-catch. “It can be a simple ‘out’, and we have some outstanding speed on the outside. Even Alon Rhett in the running game is a threat. He broke some huge plays for us.”
“Our defense is growing,” said Miller. “We’re there. Our kids are hitting. They just aren’t forming and making tackles. We drilled number 42 (Rhett) and he kept coming back.”
The Cougars tallied a pair of touchdowns in the last 3:10 of the second quarter to erase a 14-point deficit and forge a 21-all halftime deadlock.
First, Gallagher connected with senior end Mitchell Cooper on an eight-yard touchdown play in the right corner of the end zone. Then with a mere ten ticks left before the intermission, Riegle intercepted an Elco misfire and returned it 59 yards for a pick-six.
But the Raiders emerged from the break, possessed the second-half kickoff for 6:55 and 13 plays to get D, Miller’s 35-yard field goal that made it 24-21 Raiders.
“We needed to establish some sort of offense,” said Pope. “We wanted to use our speed. We thought we had a little more speed than them. We wanted to clean up ourselves defensively. I thought our kids adjusted well.”
“Our kids are warriors,” said Miller. “They talk about being men. They don’t get down. They show great leadership. It’s too soon to tell if we can do that (reach their goals).”
Sophomore Tyler Horst gave the Raiders a 21-7 cushion when he rambled in from the four yard line with 10:41 left in the second quarter. Six minutes earlier, Miller had snapped a seven-all draw by hauling in a 25-yard scoring strike from Martin.
With a 73-yard ramble, Horst set up the ten-yard Travis Zimmerman TD jaunt that opened the scoring. But the Cougars struck back less than two minutes later when Cooper and Gallagher collaborated on a 13-yard touchdown pass.
“We started talking about tackling at halftime,” said Pope. “Sometimes defense is just about heart. I thought we responded pretty well. At the end, we were able to persevere. Our offensive line has been a point of emphasis. But I thought they took a step forward tonight.”
“Yes, we played better last week,” said Miller of a dominant win over Hamburg. “We were much more consistent. The effort was the same. It was a matter of getting on line and finishing.”
Elco outgained Palmyra by a slight 438 total yards to 405.
Rhette paced the Cougar running game with 16 carries and 152 yards. Horst gained 123 of his 161 rushing yards in the first half, while Raider tailback Zimmerman picked up 87 yards on 17 totes.
“It was like a punch in the gut last week,” said Pope of the loss to East Pennsboro. “I thought things were going in our favor. Realistically, we could’ve seen confidence get away from our team. They could’ve let it drag them down, but they didn’t.”
“They’re a good physical team,” said Miller of the Cougars. “They’re a good team. They’re a Class AAA school. If we can continue to match them physically, I think we can continue to find success.”