By: Jake Felix | Williamsport Sun-Gazette | December 6, 2009
SHAMOKIN - Alex Jackson wandered through snow-covered Kemp Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon and offered encouragement to his dejected players - some on one knee with heads buried in hands and others sobbing. Words were difficult to muster, but the coach showed strength similar to what his team displayed for 48 minutes against the top-ranked Class AA team in the state.
The Lancers came within a play of advancing to the PIAA semifinals for the second time in three seasons, but instead it will be the Crusaders playing in their second straight semifinal after securing a hard-fought 19-13 victory.
"We went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the state for 48 minutes, right down to the last second," said Jackson, who suffered his first playoff loss in six games. "I couldn't have asked for any more of a fight than these guys have given me, especially the seniors, who gave me four straight amazing years."
Those seniors almost gave their coach an amazing comeback.
Trailing 19-6 with just 3:21 remaining in their season, the Lancers (10-4) drove 70 yards on six plays to pull to within 19-13 with 2:03 left. Frankie Pagana caught two passes, including a 22 yard touchdown. His first catch was a 37 yarder that moved the ball to the Lancaster Catholic 22-yard line.
"We were pretty comfortable putting the game in our defensive hands (up 19-6), though we respected their big-play ability," said Lancaster Catholic quarterback Kyle Smith. "Their quarterback did a great job making plays for them that last drive."
Loyalsock's hopes all but ended with the ensuing onsides kick when Jackson Person drove the ball into the Lancers sideline.
The Crusaders (13-1) needed to run just three plays to evaporate the rest of the clock and set up a rematch with West Catholic, a 19-14 winner over North Schuylkill.
Lancaster Catholic faced a fourth down before time expired, a position it confronted throughout Saturday's game against a stubborn Loyalsock defense. The Crusaders' offense, which scored below 20 points just twice this season and produced 35 or more in every other game, had just 19 against the Lancers who've allowed just 34 points in four playoff games.
"We had a tough time moving the football," said Lancaster Catholic coach Bruce Harbach. "Maybe different conditions might have been different story, but in these conditions you just want to survive and that's what we did."
It was a fourth down that Lancaster Catholic converted that Loyalsock will remember. Facing a fourth-and-nine from Loyalsock's 16-yard line, and the snowy conditions eliminating the possibility of a field goal attempt, Lancaster Catholic put the ball into the hands of its record-setting quarterback.
The 6-foot-4 Smith, a senior, delivered.
He found Tyler Purvis over the middle who made a great individual effort to not only secure a first down, but also a touchdown and a two-score lead.
"I knew where it was going to go and who it was going to go to," said Harbach. "It was a great throw."
Smith completed just 11 of 25 passes for 170 yards, but his final one allowed him to tie the state record for touchdown passes in a season with 49.
"They were playing a little soft on Tyler and he runs great routes and I knew he was going to get open," said Smith.
Smith threw three touchdown passes, two in the first half when the Crusaders built a 13-0 lead, helped by four first-half Loyalsock turnovers.
A 36 yard second quarter touchdown pass to Quinn Houser nearly never happened as the Crusaders offense, which met as an entire group on the sideline while the official set the ball for play, nearly didn't get set in time before the play clock expired. Once the ball was snapped, another close call nearly derailed the play, but Loyalsock's Andy Engler was just a step slow of sacking Smith before he launched the pass that hit Houser in stride.
Loyalsock's offense couldn't find similar success in the first 24 minutes as Stopper threw three interceptions and fumbled once. He completed just one of his first 11 passes, including the three picks, before hitting three straight, including a 32 yard pass to Pagana in the third quarter that erased the goose egg.
Stopper finished with 104 passing yards and Pagana caught three passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns in their final scholastic games.