Lancers advance out of early deficit
No coaches giving fiery motivational speeches were necessary. The Loyalsock players already had things under control. Trailing by 17 at halftime Friday, the players inspired each other and agreed their season would not end like this.
They then put words into action. The Lancers made the unexpected the norm, unloaded a furious arsenal and played their best half this season.
Put it all together and Loyalsock exorcized some playoff demons and is district championship bound. Connor Watkins threw for 276 yards and three touchdowns while also returning a quick kick 52 yards for a go-ahead touchdown and the defense dominated the final two quarters as Loyalsock turned a 17-point deficit into a thrilling 35-24 win District 4 Class AAA semifinal win over Lewisburg at Kenneth Robbins Stadium. The Lancers scored 28 third-quarter points on four touches, stunning the determined Green Dragons and earning a spot in next weekend’s final at top-seeded Danville.
“The kids were rolling through with fire. The statements the kids were making (at halftime) made tonight even more sweet,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said. “It was an amazing scene to witness. This was the kids becoming true leaders and them taking control of their own destiny and their team and their season in a way that I’ve never seen.”
Loyalsock (7-4) snapped a three-game playoff losing streak and earned a shot at winning its first district championship since 2009. The Lancers did it the hard way as Lewisburg (4-7) owned the first half on both sides and built a 24-7 lead.
Lewisburg reached the Loyalsock 14-yard-line on the third-quarter’s initial series, but the Lancers held and then ushered in a scene few that follow Loyalsock have ever seen. The Lancers scored long touchdowns on their next three plays and when Watkins returned the first kick he’s received this season, the Lancers held a lead. It happened so fast that those who stood in line at the concession stand might have missed it.
“All year we’ve been able to make big plays and our message in the locker room was we have to come out and go one play at a time and we can’t make a 17-point play. Our defense held strong and we were able to make something happen and that was huge,” Watkins said. “We had 24 minutes and we just knew we had to chip away at it, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did. That was crazy.”
“We know how bad all of us wanted this. Just the fact that this is the last time on this field and could be our last time playing as a whole, that’s the ultimate motivation because we all love this game and we love each other so much. None of us want it to be over yet,” linebacker Hunter Webb said after breaking off a 90-yard touchdown run and making a game-high 17 tackles, including four for loss. “We knew we started out slow and made some adjustments, moved some guys around and came out playing downhill. That was the ultimate factor, playing downhill.”
The Lancers ran three third-quarter plays and all three resulted in touchdowns that totaled 267 yards. Throw in Watkins 52-yard return and Loyalsock totaled 319 yards and four scores on four touches.
“I’ve never experienced a single thing even moderately close to what happened tonight,” Van Fleet said. “Once we got rolling, I really think the New England Patriots could have shown up and these guys would have found a way because they were believing in everything. They were believing in each other more than I’ve ever seen.”
It all started when Sam Newton blew by his defender and Watkins hit him in stride for a 74-yard touchdown. Following a Lewisburg 3-and-out, Webb broke free for a 90-yard touchdown. The offensive line gave Webb a crease and after he broke two tackles, the Connecticut-bound senior ran untouched down the left sideline, beating a series of speedy defensive backs. Just like that, Loyalsock led, 24-21.
“Our line set it up perfectly and all I had to do is get past those couple of guys,” Webb said. “That was the mentality, just head down and run through them. That’s what I tried to do. When that adrenaline kicks in we’re all one. We all love each other and that’s the main thing. When you have team chemistry like this, there’s a lot we can do with this team.”
Lewisburg freshman Max Moyers put on a show, running for 230 yards and two touchdowns while going over 1,000 this season. He scored touchdowns on two of Lewisburg’s first four possessions and Nick Shedleski’s 64-yard touchdown pass to Dakotah Snyder off a flea flicker had the Dragons up 17 and closing in on their first playoff win since 2011.
But that lead evaporated for good once Watkins made his first punt return one to remember. Lewisburg was facing a 3rd-and-29 from inside its 35 and Shedleski dropped a quick kick up the left sideline. Watkins fielded the ball at the 48, then zigged and zagged his way across the field. Watkins went over 2,000 yards passing this season, but also played safety and showed on that return why he is a good football, period.
“I had absolutely no idea it was coming. I was playing over the top and I saw Shed catch it and take two steps up and go for the kick and I knew it was going to come right to me,” Watkins said. ” I just went and it was fun. Once I got it, it was like we were on actual punt return because guys were making all the blocks. I’m just so happy we were able to pull it out.”
The scoring barrage was not over. Defensive end Bam Bam Brima (9 tackles, 3 for loss) blew up a Lewisburg fourth down play from the 27 minutes later and Loyalsock took over. The Lancers again were facing a long field but 73 yards was like a chip shot the way it was clicking.
The line protected well and Watkins found Jacob Waltz down the middle for a 73-yard touchdown. Less than seven minutes earlier, Loyalsock trailed by 17 points. Following Waltz’s touchdown, the Lancers led 35-24 with those four plays taking just 45 seconds.
“When we got down early this year we were able to battle back we’ve been able to come back, but we just haven’t been able to get over that peak and tonight we finally did,” Watkins said. “I’m just so happy we could finally get one. I love this team to death.”
Lewisburg moved inside Loyalsock territory the first five times it had the ball during the second half, but it never scored. The defense formed a vise and different players kept making big plays at the perfect times. Malaki Parlante clinched the win when he stopped Shedleski short on a 4th-and-2 at midfield.
“This is a lot of hard work that’s culminating as a whole program,” Van Fleet said. “Our mantra for the offseason was everything earned and, they made it very interesting, but they’ve earned every piece of excitement we’re experiencing right now.”