BOTD: Lancers came together at the right time in 2017

Those who look at just the record might raise some eyebrows when seeing the 2017 Lancers ranked No. 8. Loyalsock traveled a sometimes rocky road that season and finished 8-5. Still, by season’s end this was an outstanding team, one which captured a District 4 Class AAA championship and that was a play from stunning perennial power Scranton Prep in states.

If these rankings were based on the first six weeks, Loyalsock would be nowhere near the Top 10. But this is big picture and by season’s end the Lancers had established themselves as one of the decade’s best, featuring an all-star lineup highlighted by four future Division I players.

Loyalsock won 15 regular-season games in 2015-16 but both seasons ended in disappointment as it lost home quarterfinal and semifinal games. How odd it was then when a 6-4 regular season in 2017 led to a district championship as everything and everyone came together at the perfect time.

“It’s not necessarily how you start anything in your life, it’s how you finish. This group finished as champions. They finished it as men. They finished it as individuals who are role models in so many ways,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said following the heartbreaking state tournament loss against Scranton Prep. “Those characteristics are the characteristics I’m going to remember the season by.”

Loyalsock knocked on the door the previous two seasons and was determined to kick it down in 2017. The first six weeks, though, were like a roller coaster. The Lancers started 3-3 and suffered a 56-28 loss at South Williamsport in Week 6. That was the only time Loyalsock was soundly defeated that season, with the other four losses coming by 14 combined points.

That beatdown in South also produced a pivotal moment. Instead of sulking, Loyalsock came back fighting, determined to improve and to show that it was not the same team which was pushed around at Rodney K. Morgans Stadium.

Loyalsock lost just once more on the road to states and the defense stiffened, allowing 15.8 points per game over the next six weeks. The offense was one of the district’s most explosive with future Villanova quarterback Connor Watkins throwing for a program-record 2,559 yards and 30 touchdowns. The dual threat with a cannon arm also ran for 480 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cole Cavanaugh prevented teams from loading up against the pass, producing 1,065 rushing yards behind an offensive line which peaked down the stretch. Wide receiver Gerald Ross earned all-state honors and was on his way to becoming the area’s career yardage record-holder, going over 1,000 yards for the first time. Brock Hepler added 35 catches and had a knack for extending drives, and Jaiden Cioffi added 23 receptions.

Although the defense struggled at times through the first six weeks, it surged late and was anchored by all-state linebacker Hunter Webb who topped 100 tackles for the second of three consecutive years and who eventually would become the program’s all-time leading tackler. Defensive end Bam Brima made a huge impact in his first season at Loyalsock and would be playing at Pittsburgh two years later. He was joined up front by St. Francis-bound Carmen Barone and Geno Ginobile, both who could be game-changers. Linebackers Dom Fischetti and Chase Waller both had strong seasons and cornerback Sam Newton was one of the area’s best, intercepting an area-high seven passes. Jacob Waltz was another valuable defender and provided a special teams spark with his return ability.

Loyalsock certainly had the pieces but it needed them to all fit together perfectly when Lewisburg built a 17-point halftime lead in the district semifinals. The ghosts of past playoff defeats in their collective memory, Loyalsock rallied around each other and delivered a comeback performance which bested epitomized who the Lancers were.

In a flash, Loyalsock turned a 24-7 halftime deficit into a 35-24 lead and won by that margin, dominating all facets in the second half. The Lancers stopped Lewisburg in the red zone on the third-quarter’s first series before putting together one of the more dazzling sequences in program history. Loyalsock scored four touchdowns on four plays that lasted a combined 45 seconds. Seven minutes after trailing by 17, Loyalsock led by 11 and was on its way to Danville for the district championship.

“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 after throwing for 276 yards and three touchdowns. “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.”

That might be the best way to describe it. A team which averaged 35.8 points per game went into overdrive and it started when Watkins found Newton for a 74-yard touchdown. It continued following a three-and-out when Webb ripped off a 90-yard touchdown run. Watkins then returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown and Loyalsock had its first lead, but it was it was not finished. Watkins capped the barrage with a 73-yard touchdown to Waltz on Loyalsock’s next play, giving the Lancers a 35-24 lead and leaving Lewisburg stunned.

The Lancers ran three third-quarter offensive plays and they produced 267 yards and three touchdowns.

“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.”

That belief carried over into the championship as Loyalsock overwhelmed top-seeded Danville on its home field, winning its first district title in eight years, 35-6. The Lancers limited Danville’s vaunted power running game to just 122 yards, Newton intercepted three passes and Waltz returned a kickoff for a touchdown as the Lancers controlled all aspects.

Loyalsock nearly took down undefeated Scranton Prep a week later, losing 31-28. The Lancers scored 28 points against a defense which allowed just 7.7 points per game, took a third-quarter lead and were driving for a go-ahead touchdown late before an interception ended the game and a memorable season defined by the team’s resiliency.

“We came out of our shells and played some good football and we were enjoying every second of it. It was special,” Ginobile said after making eight tackles, including five that went for zero or negative yards. “Having that underdog mentality really helped us. We got punched a lot, but after the season of (playing) Mount Carmel and Danville and all the other good teams we played, we learned to just keep moving forward.”