DANVILLE - The huddle was supposed to break with a unison call of "family", but nobody moved. This loss was too hard to take to just dismiss it in the immediate aftermath.
Loyalsock held a 14-point halftime lead at Danville on Friday night, but never scored again. The Ironmen ran for nearly 200 yards in the second half as it scored 21 unanswered points in a 28-21 win in the District 4 Class AA semifinals.
That's why Loyalsock players huddled around the 35-yard line, sharing embraces, crying, and trying to find way to explain how a team which had played so brilliantly since a Week 8 loss to Towanda, could see its season end before even reaching the district championship game.
Loyalsock players walk off the field after giving up a 21-7 lead Friday night at Danville.
"This one stings pretty dramatically. This one hurts," Loyalsock head coach Justin Van Fleet said. "Some day I'll stop taking every loss like it's the end of the world, but it's not going to be today."
Danville is headed back to the district championship game for the third time in four years, and it'll be looking for its second consecutive District 4 Class AA championship. The Ironmen will play a Troy team which upset top-seeded Montoursville, 34-14, last night.
Danville has reached the district title game despite having lost its starting quarterback for the season, and despite missing Dressler for numerous games, and despite losing No. 2 running back Isaiah Croll for a month earlier this season.
But it was new quarterback Zack Kozick who scored the game-winning touchdown. It was Dressler, finally healthy again, running for 139 of his 152 yards in the second half. And it was Croll who made the game-clinching interception in the final seconds of last night's game.
"The kids didn't want the season to end," Danville coach Jim Keiser said. "I said at halftime that you have to realize that if we lose tonight, the season is over. They love being around each other. They made this goal to make the district final and maybe even win it. I'm really happy for them."
The Ironmen made reaching the district final as difficult as possible for themselves, playing maybe as bad a first half as it had all season. Danville had just 72 yards of offense at the break. It fumbled at two crucial points leading to a Kyle Datres touchdown run and a Robbie Klein touchdown run.
There was no continuity to Danville's offense in the first half, in large part because of the continuing stellar run defense Loyalsock has been playing since that Week 8 loss to Towanda. Lucas Faubion continued to disrupt plays in the backfield. Mickey Haller shut down the perimeter, and the defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, allowing the Lancers' speedy and athletic linebackers fill gaps and make plays.
Danville ran 19 times in the first half for only 38 yards. The Ironmen's Wing-T offense had averaged 246 rushing yards in its previous 11 games, including 265 in its first meeting with Loyalsock in Week 2.
"We play very unselfish defense," Loyalsock defensive tackle Bryce Losch said. "A lot of the kids felt like they weren't making a lot of tackles or making a lot of plays, but they were filling gaps and doing what they were supposed to. They may not have made the tackles, but they were making things happen."
The running struggles had forced Danville into throwing more than it would have liked with Kozick, who Keiser said still isn't feeling quite comfortable at quarterback. After Kozick completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Evan Tanner in the first half, five of his final six passes of the half fell incomplete, including a hitch pass which was nearly intercepted by Fletcher Quigley with just over a minute to go in the half.
Down just 14 points at halftime, Keiser and his coaching staff knew they could get back to doing what it does best and decided to feed the ball to Dressler. Having carried only 21 times over the final three weeks of the season - including missing the Ironmen's loss to Montoursville - Dressler appeared to finally be over the ankle injury in a dominant performance last week against Lewisburg.
He showed in the second half last night that he was completely healthy. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry in the second half, and 11 of his 21 carries went for at least 6 yards. Five of those carries went for at least 10 yards.
Dressler brought Danville within seven points when he capped a three-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He used the first two plays of the fourth quarter to cover the final 18 yards of a 30-yard scoring drive which tied the game at 21-21 with more than 11 minutes to play.
The two scoring drives which tied the game covered a total of 68 yards. Danville's averaging starting field position in the second half was its own 44-yard line. Conversely, Loyalsock's average starting field position was its own 17-yard line, and twice it started inside its own 5-yard line.
"In some ways you have to tip your hat to Danville. They went with an unbalanced line and we had some shifts to it, but they were able to sustain the running game," Van Fleet said. "But in reality, they kept getting the ball inside the 50. If you keep giving a team like that the ball inside the 50, they're going to put points on the board."
Loyalsock gave itself a chance to win in the fourth quarter when Faubion blew up Dressler in the backfield on a third-down play inside the Lancers' 5. Danville kicker Shayne Riley missed a 22-yard field goal on the next play and the game remained tied.
The Lancers went three-and-out on its ensuing possession and a punt gave Danville the ball at its own 38-yard line. With Loyalsock completely selling out on the run, Kozick found fullback Isaac Troutman for a big 10-yard pickup and a first down. Two plays later, Kozick made a brilliant throw to Caleb Klein on a corner route putting the ball at the Loyalsock 3-yard line.
Three plays later Kozick ran a quarterback sneak for a 1-yard touchdown run.
"We're trying to get him comfortable and get him some throws he's comfortable making," Keiser said. "The throw he threw the interception on (in the third quarter), that's not a throw he's comfortable making. We've got to put him in better situations, and I thought we did that tonight."