Lancers have spent year with Danville revenge on their minds

JUDI PINKERTON/For The Sun-Gazette Hunter Knott, left, and Cole Cavanaugh, right, meet Danville tonight in the District 4 AAA final.

Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck could wait. Justin Van Fleet still was thinking football.

Shortly after the 2016 football season ended, Van Fleet and his family took a Disney World vacation. But the Loyalsock football coach still found time to make sure his players were attacking their offseason program.

He need not worry. Basically, as soon as the 2016 campaign ended with a 34-7 district semifinal loss against the Danville Ironmen, the returning players started working toward bigger things in 2017. All that work has led Loyalsock right where it wanted to be the entire time. The Lancers play for the District 4 Class AAA championship Friday night and they do so against the team they have wanted since early last November. Loyalsock plays at Danville and the winner captures district gold.

“There’s no pretending anymore. We’ve wanted to play Danville all season,” Van Fleet said. “We wanted to play Danville since the clock ended last year. We opened the weight room two days later and haven’t taken a day off.”

Loyalsock (7-4) has traveled a bumpy road at times but that path has led to Danville (9-2). Ultimately, if one wins a district championship it really does not matter who it is against because the accomplishment is such a big one. But doing so against a team that ended one’s season on its home field? That would be as good as it gets.

Loyalsock has the matchup it wants and now it’s a matter of whether it can cash in on this second chance. Danville pounded the Lancers a year ago but they used that loss as fuel and now seem better off because of it.

“Everybody who has come back has worked their butts off,” quarterback Connor Watkins said. “Last year when we lost that game, when we were shedding tears, we were saying we want them. We’re very happy it’s worked out that way.”

For a half last week, it appeared Loyalsock would not earn this opportunity. Lewisburg dominated the first half of the semifinal and took a 17-point halftime lead. It then drove inside the 15-yard line on the third-quarter’s initial drive and were going for the kill. Instead, Loyalsock fought off the ropes, landed a series of haymakers and delivered a knockout blow, scoring the next 28 points and winning, 35-24. The win snapped a three-game playoff losing streak and showed that Loyalsock can overcome quite a bit.

Loyalsock scored 28 third-quarter points, scoring all four times it touched the football on plays of 52 yards or longer. Watkins threw for 276 yards and hit Sam Newton and Jacob Waltz for long touchdowns. He also returned a quick kick 52 yards for the go-ahead score and Hunter Webb ran for a 90-yard touchdown. Throw in the defense recording a second-half shutout and Loyalsock looked as strong as it has all year.

That is a good thing, too, because Loyalsock must build off that performance against a Danville team that has most of its starters back from last year’s district finalist.

“It was a test of our character and our character is we never give up. We’re going to come out and give everybody everything we’ve got,” Webb said. “We know not every day is promised from here on out, so we just know we have to come out and give everything we’ve got.”

That has never been a problem. Loyalsock lost three of its four games by six points or fewer. It tied Mount Carmel in a two-point opening night loss twice after trailing 21-0 and erased two second-half deficits against HAC-I champion and Class AAAA finalist Shikellamy in a six-point Week 9 loss. Loyalsock did not earn the results it wanted, but it showed that it takes a lot to put it away.

This is a team that does not rattle easy and that likes a good challenge. Danville certainly presents Loyalsock that. The Ironmen have scored 117 points the last two weeks and feature a physical line on both sides of the ball. But this is where Loyalsock wants to be. It is where it has wanted to be for a year now.

Loyalsock has paid the price and Friday it hopes to reap the rewards.

“This group has hung together and believed,” Van Fleet said. “I’ve watched these kids play football since they started to walk. Watching their highs and lows as they’ve developed, there’s nothing more I would like in the entire world right now then taking this thing and making it work.”