MILTON - Many might have given up on Todd Tilford's Shikellamy football team five games into the season. At that point of the schedule the Braves were a disappointing 1-4 against a field of future playoff teams.
It turns out those doubters were wrong - very wrong.
Shikellamy powered its way to the No. 1 seed in the District 4 Class AAA playoffs Friday night, riding a five touchdown performance by senior fullback Dwayne Pepper to a stunning 54-28 Heartland Athletic Conference-I victory over Milton, completing a second half turnaround by winning for the fourth time in the second half of the season.
"To fight back to being a .500 team and, I think, get the No. 1 seed is a tremendous accomplishment for this team," Tilford said. "Our kids are playing with a lot of confidence and we will be a confident team in the playoffs."
Pepper was tremendous against a reeling Milton defense that was torched by Jersey Shore last week and surrendered 404 total yards to the Braves on senior night at Alumni Field. Held to just one touchdown and 29 yards in the first half when Milton (5-5 and 2-4 HAC-I) fought back from an early 21-6 deficit to forge a 21-21 tie at halftime, Pepper ran for three scores in the second half and finished with 138 yards on the ground.
"I just found a rhythm in the second half," Pepper said. "I loved that feeling of getting into the end zone. I was called a slacker (by an opposing coach) and I figured I would show them that I am no slacker."
The Braves grabbed a 28-21 lead on their first possession of the second half when Jean Turber dashed in from your yards after Pepper had broken a 40 yard run.
But Josh Brown's 39-yard touchdown run helped the Black Panthers tie the game at 28-28 midway through the third quarter and that's when Pepper took over the game. He scored on three consecutive Shikellamy possessions, getting the first score on a five yard run at the end of 10-play drive from midfield.
After Garrett Kemberling picked off Milton quarterback Brady Chappell for the second time and returned it to the Black Panthers 6, Pepper churned in from for his third TD of the night and handed the Braves ((5-5, 4-2) a 41-28 lead.
After another Milton turnover, Pepper raced through a gaping hole for a 32-yard score.
"We felt coming off the field at halftime, we felt like we let Milton off the hook," Tilford said. "We felt like we were behind and we challenged the kids. The offensive line did a heck of a job up front. When they get a push up front Dwayne Pepper is a pain in the butt to stop. When he gets his legs churning he is a tough guy to bring down."
If Shikellamy is surging into the playoffs, Milton is limping.
"We went from a first seed to possibly three or four," Goodwin said after his team lost for the third straight game. "We are just not playing good football right now. It's a short tournament so if we turn things around we can be right in the thick of it."
Brown continued his fine season with four rushing scores and 161 yards in 19 carries.