Watkins had 176 yards in loss

Loyalsock was DOA only 6 minutes into the season.

North Schuylkill had scored on a fourth-down, 21-yard pass. The same player scored on a 21-yard fumble return a minute later. Then the Spartans’ quarterback broke off back-to-back 26-yard runs for a touchdown.

Down 20 points, Loyalsock could have folded. Instead they fought. The Lancers still lost to the seventh-ranked Class AAA team in the state Friday night in their season-opener, 33-13. But after those initial 6 minutes, an inexperienced Loyalsock team played even with a team talking about playing deep into December.

The Lancers’ Rees Watkins caught 11 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, the defense played admirably against a bigger, more physical group. A 20-point loss should be no reason for Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet to be happy, but he saw enough positive play over the final 42 minutes last night at Kenneth M. Robbins Stadium to leave him feeling optimistic.

“We found out an awful lot about the kids,” Van Fleet said. “Having a slow start and having everything go wrong, it’s not an unpredictable thing because for a lot of them, this was their first football action in years. You have a bunch of kids trying on their shoes for the first time and we’re telling them to go run a marathon. Instead of backing down, they dug in and banded together and fought together.”

Van Fleet could look at the mistakes which caused an early 20-point deficit and then allowed North Schuylkill to pull away in the second half and he could see easily fixable issues. Three times the Lancers failed to score in the red zone. Once and underthrown pass inside the 20 was intercepted with a receiver open behind the defense. And four turnovers were certainly not part of the gameplan.

But there were tangible positive moments which made the negatives of the night more tolerable. Sure, the Loyalsock defense gave up 10 runs of 15 yards or more which accounted for 254 of the Spartans’ 343 rushing yards. But on North Schuylkill’s other 32 carries, it averaged less than 3 yards per carry and totaled just 89 yards.

The Loyalsock offense struggled to move the football on the ground, but it was playing without its top two running backs after they were two of the four players involved in a violent car crash this week which kept them from playing. But Chase Cavanaugh and Korie Mayer found ways to move the chains on the ground to couple with Cavanaugh’s 218 passing yards which gave the Lancers opportunities in the red zone.

Don’t be fooled, it wasn’t a great opening performance for Loyalsock. But it was also by no means a disaster. The Lancers played a superior football team who at times looked like the seventh-ranked team in the state. Quarterback Jaden Leiby was a magician running North Schuylkill’s option offense. And his 24-yard touchdown run in the third quarter in which he cut back against the grain on a sweep to the left was the back-breaking type of run which isn’t diagrammed in a playbook.

“How do you stop a quarterback that has that much juice in the action?” Van Fleet said. “We used to have a guy like that here. You don’t tell him to do that. You don’t teach him to do what he did on that touchdown run. He’s just an athlete making a play.”

Leiby finished with 159 rushing yards on 19 carries. He recorded 140 of those yards on just six carries which went for at least 14 yards. He was the same pain in the butt on the ground last night he was a year ago when the Spartans beat a much more experience Loyalsock team, 42-21. In two career games against Loyalsock, Leiby has carries 39 times for 376 yards and four touchdowns.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” North Schuylkill coach Walter Hall said. “He has multiple reads he has to go through, but we’re looking for a high percentage of success in those plays and when he makes the right decisions we have success.”

Loyalsock fumbled its opportunities to get back into the game in the first half. A sure-fire touchdown pass was dropped in the end zone on a drive which eventually ended in a turnover on downs in the red zone. Cavanaugh fumbled on the 1-yard line going into the end zone on the next series.

On a fourth-down play from the 5-yard line in the third quarter, the snap rolled back to Cavanaugh and he wasn’t able to pick up the 1 yard he needed for a first down. Only a well-executed 2-minute drill to end the first half which ended in the first of two Watkins touchdown receptions put points on the board in the first half.

North Schuylkill struggled to have any answer for Watkins, a senior playing his first football game since seventh grade. He gave Cavanaugh a deep threat North Schuylkill struggled to match up with one-on-one. And his athletic — almost rebounding style — way of catching the football at its highest point gave the Spartans almost no chance to challenge him with the ball in the air.