Montoursville beats Loyalsock to win Battle of the Bridge in football
Heath Jones never before played tailback. Until two weeks ago he was the team’s backup fullback. Understandably, he could have been surprised when circumstance had Montoursville coach J.C. Keefer looking his way to become the featured ball-carrier midway through the second quarter Saturday night against rival Loyalsock.
“When I said, ‘Heath can you do this for us?’ he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Coach, I’ve been waiting for this,'” Montoursville coach J.C. Keefer said. “That told me this is the kid we’re going to give the ball to.”
And it revealed exactly who Jones and his teammates are. They truly are warriors and when so much went wrong from an injury standpoint at Kenneth Robbins Stadium, those players made sure everything still turned out right. Montoursville lost state leading rusher Rocco Pulizzi and four-year starter Dylan Moll to first-half injuries, but Jones ran for 98 yards, the defense shined and it defeated Loyalsock, 23-12, while capturing the Battle of the Bridge Trophy for a third straight year.
The Warriors (6-0) remained undefeated and secured the top seed for the District 4 Class AAA playoffs, but more importantly, showcased their grit, character and versatility. Whether it was Jones moving from fullback to tailback or CJ Signor going from center to fullback at halftime or Marco Pulizzi effectively replacing Moll in the secondary or Hunter Hanna anchoring a shuffled offensive line, Montoursville found a way to beat an excellent team for a second time in three weeks after overcoming similar obstacles against Danville in Week 3.
Montoursville has won a lot of big games over the years and is a two-time defending district champion. Keefer has helped it win four district titles since 2014, but the way Montoursville won last night’s game makes this victory as sweet as any during his 10-year coaching tenure.
“I want to give Loyalsock a lot of credit. They played their tails off and they played really well and had a great game plan but it’s just incredible the way our kids came together and accomplished what they accomplished and I have to take my hat off to the senior leaders who would not let us fold,” Keefer said. “I could talk about individuals all night, but this was really a team effort. I couldn’t be more proud of an effort by a group of kids in a single game than I am tonight. I’ve said that a couple times I know this year, but I’ve never gone through this.”
Pulizzi broke his collar bone on Montoursville’s first offensive play after ripping off a 35-yard run, likely ending a brilliant season in which he ran for 1,040 yards. Moll ran for 55 yards on eight carries after replacing Pulizzi but injured his thumb and was lost midway through the second quarter. Montoursville led 13-6 at the time, but appeared in deep trouble. Instead a relentless defense took over and Dylan Bennett made a game-changing 40-yard fourth-quarter catch. Montoursville then started grinding out yards and burning the clock while scoring 10 straight fourth-quarter points and going up, 23-6.
Signor voluntarily moved to center three weeks ago despite never playing there before because of injuries. He switched back to his old No. 47 jersey at halftime and ran for 34 yards, clinching the game with a late first-down run. This is a selfless team that has shined through adversity and when it had every opportunity to buckle, Montoursville kept fighting back, eventually landing a knockout blow against a valiant challenger.
“It’s actually crazy to me that we have so many good players that can fill in behind the guys that are starting,” Jones said. “These kids at any other school would be playing every down, but we just have so many young guys that step up and they do their jobs and we overcame it tonight and we did it against Danville, too.”
“Every day at practice our coach preaches to us that there’s going to be some type of adversity, someone could get hurt and we don’t know who it’s going to be and when it’s going to happen,” Bennett said. “Losing Rocco that first play and then Dylan Moll was a big loss for us, but we have guys that are ready. They’re getting in there in practice and repping and they know what they’re doing and it was just an all-around team effort.”
Isaiah Fenner capped Montoursville’s five-play, 69-yard opening drive with a 10-yard touchdown before Loyalsock responded with a 72-yard scoring drive. JerVal Weeks-Shuler made a tremendous leaping 21-yard touchdown catch that tied the game but Montoursville quickly answered and went up 13-6 late in the first quarter when Maddix Dalena threw a beauty of a deep ball and found Dillon Young for a 45-yard touchdown.
At that point it looked like the latest Bridge Game might be a shootout. Soon, though, the injuries and a physical Loyalsock defense started slowing Montoursville. But as the offense adjusted and tried finding new weapons, the Warrior defense started dominating. Between the Weeks-Shuler touchdown and Cavanaugh’s 7-yard touchdown run with 33 seconds remaining, Loyalsock ran 28 plays and gained 39 yards. The Lancers had good field position on three third-quarter possessions, but Montoursville did not allow a first down and gave the offense time to find its footing in the fourth quarter.
“Football is a game of momentum, a game of field position and we had chances. In those moments we have to be able to capitalize and take advantage of the situation,” Loyalsock coach Justin Van Fleet said. “That’s what it comes down to is striving to get better and striving for greatness. We’ll continue to work our tails off to try and become that team.”
“I was preaching to our defense that we lost probably our two biggest playmakers on offense so we needed to pick it up which we did,” Bennett said. “We shut them down for the most part except for that last drive. We’re a team. It’s not one of us doing everything. We’re all in this together. We all know what we have to do our job and the rest of it will take care of itself.”
Montoursville’s defensive leader then made the play which sparked the offense. The Warriors were at their 35-yard line late in the third quarter when Dalena looked deep and found Bennett a step behind the secondary. Bennett made a spectacular diving catch for a 40-yard gain and the Warriors eventually reached the 1-yard line before Young’s 23-yard field goal made it 16-6 with 10:01 remaining. Montoursville then put the game away on its next series, producing an 11-play drive with Dalena finding Young for a 10-yard touchdown on fourth-and-4.
“For a while there it was going three-and-out, three-and-out. We were trading punts back and forth and we were getting on the short end of it because we were getting pinned deep near our end zone,” Bennett said. “I told our guys we needed to put a drive together. We needed a big play or something to get us out of our own end zone and that’s what ended up happening.”
Hanna and his fellow linemen Lane Stutzman, Sam Carson, Thad Anderson and Ethan Wanner helped make it happen throughout the fourth quarter, imposing their will up front. Jones ran as hard as his line blocked and the 5-foot-7, 165-pounder consistently gained tough yards. He carried 22 times which was 19 more than he had done so in Montoursville’s first 19 games.
When Montoursville needed a lift Jones was there. He also played his usual strong defensive game and his blitz forced a hurried throw that Young intercepted following the field goal. He then carried six times for 27 hard-fought yards on the game-clinching touchdown drive that took 6:17 off the clock.
“When Rocco got hurt I was like, ‘Well there goes our horse, our guy to take us down the field, but I said if he’s down then we just have to grind even harder,” Jones said. “We just can’t stop. We have to work 10 times harder.”
Loyalsock worked mighty hard as well and young players like Rian Glunk and Tyler Gee provided excellent coverage while first-time players Naz Smith and Weeks-Shuler also made key impacts. Glunk and Smith both intercepted passes and Aeden Holler and Korie Mayer combined for 15 tackles. Holler was a force in the second half and had three tackles for loss, giving him 16 this season.
Cavanaugh produced 177 yards and went 4 for 4 on Loyalsock’s final scoring drive before producing his 51st career touchdown on the 7-yard run. Montoursville recovered the onside kick with 30 seconds remaining and Signor’s 10-yard run clinched the win, but Loyalsock went down fighting. It was not the result Loyalsock wanted, but if it maintains its current No. 4 seed in the district standings it will get a rematch with Montoursville in two weeks.
“It’s one of those games where you hate to see anyone lose. Unfortunately, we did and that’s a bitter pill to swallow, however, the kids know leaving this game we can play with anybody,” Van Fleet said. “It’s what we’ve been saying all year. Give us the time and place and we’re going to come out and give it all we can and try our best to get the job done.”
Montoursville will try closing out an undefeated regular season at Warrior Run next Friday. Montoursville will have to sort out the injuries, but this team thrives on challenges and keeps moving forward despite taking some mighty big hits.
“When you have the leading rusher in the state go down and we put Dylan Moll back there and he goes down, at this point our kids could have easily folded but kids like Dylan Bennett and our senior class are not going to let that happen,” Keefer said. “We get two hours each day and I don’t know if people realize how hard that is. We didn’t have any summer or spring practices so to take kids and put them in positions they’ve never played before, I can’t say enough about them.”
Montoursville 23, Loyalsock 12
Montoursville 13 0 0 10ä23
Loyalsock 6 0 0 6ä12
MäIsaiah Fenner 10 run (kick blocked), 8:00
LäJerVal Weeks-Shuler 21 pass from Chase Cavanaugh (kick blocked), 3:59
MäDillon Young 45 pass from Maddix Dalena (Young kick), 1:08
MäYoung 23-yard field goal, 10:01
MäYoung 10 yard pass from Dalena (Young kick), 1:31
LäCavanaugh 7 run (kick failed), :33
First Downs 19 10
Rushes-yards 47-254 25-52
Passing yards 108 140
Total yards 362 192
Comp-Att-Int 6-14-2 11-22-1
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-0
Penalties-yards 3-35 2-15
RUSHING: Montoursville, Heath Jones 22-98; Dylan Moll 8-55; Rocco Pulizzi 1-35; CJ Signor 8-34; Dylan Bennett 5-19; Maddix Dalena 1-9; Isaiah Fenner 2-4, TD. Loyalsock, Chase Cavanaugh 18-37, TD; Korie Mayer 7-15.
PASSING: Montoursville, Dalena 6-14-2, 108 yards, 2 TDs. Loyalsock, Cavanaugh 11-22-1, 140 yards, TD.
RECEIVING: Montoursville, Dillon Young 3-62, 2 TDs; Bennett 1-40; Moll 1-3; Signor 1-3. Loyalsock, Tyler Gee 4-52; JerVal Weeks-Shuler 4-49, TD; Naz Smith 2-27; Nick Barone 1-12.
INTERCEPTIONS: Montoursville, Young. Loyalsock, Smith, Rian Glunk.
RECORDS: Montoursville 6-0. Loyalsock 3-2.