POTTSVILLE – The Spartans are headed to the District 11 3A Championship.
Perennial football powerhouse, the Pottsville Crimson Tide, fell to the upstart team from Southern Lehigh 21-19 here Friday night in a nail-biter.
“It feels great,” head coach John Toman said amidst jubilant players, staff, and fans. Southern Lehigh football players had never won a playoff game until Friday night. In fact, the program has only made the playoffs four times in the school’s history. The Spartans will play at least once more this season when they take on the undefeated Allentown Central Catholic Vikings next week. Southern Lehigh lost to the Vikings 42-7 in last year’s district semifinals. But the Spartans have defied the odds already this year. As senior wide receiver Jeff Smillie told his teammates after the game, “who would have thought that S.L. would be in the district championship!”
The road to that unlikely district championship berth went through the 9-1 Crimson Tide. The Spartans had to meet this tough team in magnificent Veterans Memorial Stadium. Indeed, the college-level stadium, winning tradition, high ranking, and University of Alabama-style uniforms seem designed to intimidate opponents into submission. But the Spartans had other things in mind.
After winning the coin toss, Toman decided to defer the ball until the second half. Pottsville started out at their 26-yard line. After senior running back Robert Thompson picked up a first down, the Spartan defense stopped Pottsville in their tracks. Senior linebacker Ray Durkin’s sack on junior quarterback Tyler Heffner on 3rd-and-7 forced the Crimson Tide to punt.
Southern Lehigh’s offense then did what it has done best all season long: make big plays. On 3rd-and-5 from the Spartan 40-yard line, senior fullback Luke Gotzon broke loose for a 60-yard touchdown sprint to the end zone. Senior kicker D.J. Williams’ extra point put Southern Lehigh ahead 7-0 with 8:09 to play in the first quarter. The upset was on.
Earlier in the week, Toman had said his team had an edge on Pottsville in the kicking game. That became apparent on Pottsville’s next drive. Helped by two Spartan penalties, the home team put together a 75-yard touchdown drive, capped off by junior running back Cliff Newton’s 17-yard run for the score. However, when senior kicker Trey Hook missed the extra point, the Crimson Tide had left the door open for Southern Lehigh to retain the lead – as it did the rest of the night.
Smillie ensured that Hook’s short kickoff wouldn’t put the Spartans in bad field position by bringing it out 10 yards to the 20-yard line. From there, senior halfback Matt Gotzon gained five yards and brother Luke Gotzon gained 17 more. On 3rd-and-7, junior quarterback Ty Edmond hit Smillie with a 12-yard strike for a Spartan first down. Matt Gotzon moved the ball 20 yards to the Pottsville 22-yard line, and once again brother Luke Gotzon took the next handoff – this time all the way in for a touchdown. Williams’ kick put Southern Lehigh ahead 14-6 with 13 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
After defensive coordinator Derek Bleiler’s men forced a quick three-and-out for Pottsville, senior halfback Nick Kirsch ran for 20 yards to the Pottsville 44-yard line. Pottsville stopped Southern Lehigh cold on the next three plays, forcing a punt by Williams. Thompson gave the home team great field position by returning the kick 43 yards to the Spartan 32-yard line.
Southern Lehigh’s defense then made what was arguably its most important stand of the night. Bending, bending some more, but never breaking, the Spartans gave up a 13-yard run on first down and another 10-yard run two plays later, but wouldn’t let Pottsville score. Southern Lehigh cheerleaders lined up near the end zone and shouted encouragement to their team throughout the goal-line stand. On 1st-and-goal at the Spartan 8-yard line, the defense stopped Newton after a one-yard gain. On second down, thanks in part to a fumbled snap, Luke Gotzon tackled Heffner for a loss of seven yards. Southern Lehigh declined a holding penalty against Pottsville. Senior cornerback Alex Kocse and others swarmed junior wide receiver Anthony Kelly after a five-yard catch at the Spartan 9-yard line. On 4th-and-goal, Pottsville head coach Kevin Keating decided to forego a field goal and try for the end zone one more time. Matt Gotzon was having none of it. With the defensive line putting intense pressure on Heffner, Gotzon slapped down Heffner’s pass incomplete, and ended Pottsville’s hopes for a tying score.
The rest of the first half was a slugfest. Neither team broke any big plays on offense or defense. No one scored. It was a war of attrition in which turnovers could have been huge. But none came. Southern Lehigh moved the ball out of danger thanks to an 8-yard run by senior halfback Keaton Eisenhauer. On fourth down, Williams punted past midfield. Thompson and junior running back Derek Knight gained eight yards, but the sure tackling of Ray Durkin, Kocse, and a sack on third down by Luke Gotzon forced Pottsville to punt. Smillie reeled in a nine-yard catch to gain a first down at the Spartan 40-yard line, but two unsuccessful plays and a fumbled snap at the Spartan 27-yard line produced yet another Williams punt. Once again, though, the senior kept Pottsville on their side of the field with a 41-yard boot. Pottsville ended the half with a penalty and a loss of yardage.
When Southern Lehigh came out of the locker room, they looked tired. It was cold and wet. Their dirty, grass-stained uniforms told of how the once-despised team from Center Valley had risen through the ranks of the Colonial League to challenge a perennial state championship contender for the chance to play another day. The Spartans had won the first round. Could they win another? Or would the home field advantage, tough crowd, and muscular opposition wear the Spartans down?
After Smillie’s 29-yard kickoff return, Toman had his team come out firing. Edmond took to the air. Smillie for three yards. A deep shot to Kirsch that fell incomplete. A strike to Luke Gotzon for 12 yards and a first down. Another deep throw to Smillie, ruled incomplete by officials despite looking like a catch. Unfortunately, the referees’ call and a stuffed Kirsch run on third down made Southern Lehigh punt from midfield. Williams’ kick to the Pottsville 12-yard line was undone by Thompson’s 33-yard return to the Pottsville 45-yard line. Was the Crimson Tide ready to roll?
Not quite. Senior defensive end David Givler and Matt Gotzon sacked Heffner for a four-yard loss on first down. Kocse and junior safety Matt Durkin tackled senior wide receiver A.J. Hubiak after a gain of eight yards. Heffner overthrew his target on third down. After a punt, Southern Lehigh got the ball back at the Spartan 14-yard line. Pottsville’s defense gave Southern Lehigh no slack. Twice defenders got in Edmond’s face. Eisenhauer’s six-yard run was the only gain of the series. On 4th-and-4 at the Spartan 20-yard line, Williams punted back to the Pottsville 45-yard line.
It was then that the Tide came rolling in. Newton gained one yard on the ground, followed by Thompson for five. Defensive pass interference on third down gave Pottsville a first down at the Spartan 35-yard line. Thompson then ran for another 10 yards and a first down. From the 25-yard line, Heffner threw to Thompson in the backfield. Thompson reared back and hit Kelly on a well-executed halfback option pass to the end zone. The 25-yard touchdown strike made the score 14-12, with 4:23 to play in the third quarter. Kocse, whom Kelly had just scored on, once again had the ball thrown his way. The senior cornerback was having none of it, though, as he swatted the ball away on Heffner’s two-point conversion attempt. The undaunted senior’s play kept Pottsville from tying the score, and proved decisive in his team’s victory.
Southern Lehigh’s offense showed its courage, too, with a six-minute, 82-yard touchdown drive. Hook again squib-kicked, putting Southern Lehigh at their own 18-yard line. After Eisenhauer ran for three yards, a false start penalty made it 2nd-and-12 for the Spartans. Pottsville’s defense smelled blood after stopping Matt Gotzon for no gain. On 3rd-and-12, though, Edmond showed his quickness and intelligence on a 27-yard scamper to the Southern Lehigh 43-yard line. Offensive coordinator Mike Feifel went back to Eisenhauer, who gained 12 yards on the ground. On 3rd-and-6 from the Pottsville 41-yard line, Kirsch ran for nine to pick up another first down. Luke Gotzon went down with a cramp as the third quarter ended, and the fourth quarter began with a holding penalty to bring up 2nd-and-22. On 3rd-and-22, Edmond connected with Smillie for a 17-yard gain. On fourth down, Edmond again found his target on a 16-yard strike to Eisenhauer at the Pottsville 11-yard line. Fighting through tacklers, junior fullback Jake Meluskey took Edmond’s next pass in for an 11-yard touchdown score. Williams connected on his final extra point attempt of the evening to make the score 21-12 with 9:47 to play.
Senior kicker Sam Terlingo’s high kickoff forced a fair catch, thus preventing another long kick return by Pottsville. From their own 25-yard line though, Pottsville wasted no time in roaring down the field for another touchdown. Down by nine points and needing two scores to tie or win the game, the Crimson Tide came out with guns ablazing. Thompson took a handoff 17 yards on a reverse. But Ray Durkin then sacked Heffner to put Pottsville back at their 38-yard line. Kocse and Eisenhauer’s hit on Kelly broke up what would have been a long pass downfield. After Pottsville converted a 4th-and-11, Thompson ran for 23 yards to the Spartan 10-yard line. The Spartan defense stiffened, but this time Pottsville squeezed through to reach paydirt. On first down Newton gained five yards. On 2nd-and-goal from the Spartan 5-yard line, a gang-tackled Knight extended the ball over the goal line to score Pottsville’s final touchdown of the night. Down by three, Keating went for the extra point, which was good. With 6:05 left to play, Southern Lehigh led Pottsville 21-19.
After Eisenhauer gave the Spartans a good kickoff return of 20 yards, the offense couldn’t move the ball, forcing Williams to punt. His kick ended inside the Pottsville 20-yard line. An illegal block by Pottsville put the Crimson Tide back at their own 9-yard line.
With time running out and needing a field goal to win, Pottsville moved downfield against Southern Lehigh’s desperate and tired defenders. Knight started off the drive with a five yard gain, followed by another three yard gain by Thompson. Good tackling by Southern Lehigh forced 3rd-and-2, on which Heffner overthrew Thompson covered by Kirsch. On 4th-and-2 from his own 17-yard line, Heffner found Thompson for a nine-yard gain to keep Pottsville’s hopes alive. Heffner then connected with junior tight end Jacob Tobin for a 27-yard gain past midfield. But a false start moved Pottsville back to their 48-yard line. After Newton gained one yard on first down, Keating called timeout with 1:34 remaining in the game. Spartan players and coaches huddled to catch their breath in preparation for the Tide’s last onslaught. Heffner aimed for Hubiak on second down to pick up seven yards, but overthrew his pass on 3rd-and-7 to bring up 4th-and-7 from the Southern Lehigh 45-yard line. Fans cheered and players on the sideline waited expectantly. But Heffner’s fourth down pass turned out to be Pottsville’s last gasp, as Matt Durkin’s coverage caused the pass to fall incomplete. Players and fans erupted in shouts and cheers as their offense took the field. Cheerleaders chanted “Spartans! Spartans!” Despite Pottsville’s last timeout, Edmond kneeled to run out the clock and put Southern Lehigh in the District 11 Championship Game. Southern Lehigh students rushed the field as players lined up to shake hands. Toman and his staff and players enjoyed the fruits of a hard-fought victory, earning the accolades and well-wishes of many Pottsville fans.
The Spartans will visit Allentown Central Catholic next week to win the rights to the District 11 3A championship.