Dreams of winning a Class 4A District 3 football championship in the past decade have meant bringing that hopeful imagination to Bishop McDevitt’s Rocco Ortenzio Field, where the Crusaders await you on Black Friday, able and ready to easily squash your aspirations right quick.
But the defending PIAA state champ Crusaders did not take seriously the mettle of the Barons of Manheim Central, who also have had great success on the gridiron over the past 40 years, winning numerous district titles and a state title a couple of decades ago before McDevitt came to roost in 4A.
On a cold, more than brisk November 24 night, the Barons gave the Crusaders all they could have wanted in this big game. Bishop McDevitt had three personal foul penalties in the game’s first 14 minutes, a muffed punt, and a blocked punt that Manheim Central pounced on for a quick-six that buried the Crusaders in a 17-8 halftime hole. For a team that has not trailed in a game since early September, the Crusaders’ dream of defending their state championship come December was turning into more nightmare than it was bemusement.
Arguably, it seems that McDevitt over the past number of years does not have to play their best football to beat you; however, to beat them you must play your best game of the season. Yet two coaching decisions by the Barons may long be remembered in a town that takes its football passionately and seriously. The first happened in the late moments of the first quarter, after McDevitt pinned the burgundy-and-white inside their own one-yard line with a nifty wind-aided punt which the Crusaders brilliantly downed. Backed up, the Barons decided to throw the ball into a stiff wind on first down and the Crusaders’ swarming defense sacked quarterback Zac Hahn for a safety. It was a curious call that gave the Crusaders, who were struggling mightily on offense, a much-needed jolt.
The second, bigger game-changer came with 8:45 left in the game, when McDevitt had the ball inside their own 35-yard line facing a 3rd and 10. A holding penalty on McDevitt, accepted by the Barons, pushed the ball back ten more, making it 3rd and 20. And as big-time quarterbacks tend to do, Crusaders’ SEC Kentucky-bound signal-caller Stone Saunders delivered a perfect 27-yard, surgically-placed ball down the near hash marks that changed the field and the game completely. Saunders followed that strike by throwing another into the end-zone to make it 17-15. Then, the stunned Barons fumbled deep in their territory in the ensuing series after the kick-off, and Saunders again drilled a perfect zip to his go-to receiver Rico Scott, who is Alabama-bound. After a sweet two-point conversation, the Crusaders were up six, only 47 seconds after being down nine. It was a stunning turnaround that only championship caliber teams seem capable of doing in crunch time. Surely, McDevitt would have had to punt the football away on a 4th and 10 in their own territory if the penalty was declined. That decision will be mulled over in northern Lancaster County for some time to come.
It was a crucial momentum changer, and the Barons never were able to move the football in the game’s final moments to threaten McDevitt’s solid defense that controlled the line of scrimmage the entire game. “We have the heart of a champion, no question,” a victorious head coach Jeff Weachter said after the 23-17 victory. “I am proud of these guys for responding and playing like champions in the second half.”
Once again, a dream of upsetting the vaunted Crusaders ended without a happy ending for a Barons’ team seemingly ready and poised to knock out the defending champs, who now will meet the Mountaineers of Dallas High School – the District 2 champ located just north of Wilkes-Barre – in the PIAA state semifinal game on Friday, December 1.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness