By: Chance Cook | Towanda Daily Review | November 14, 2015 | Photo courtesy Brian Fees
ATHENS — It was Aaron Barry and company that gave Athens the late fourth-quarter lead, but it was the Wildcats' collective defense that stood tall through wind, rain and two late Danville opportunities Friday night, as Athens advanced in the playoffs with a 20-17 win.
Within the final five minutes of the game Danville began two drives in Athens territory trailing by three points and came away with none.
The Ironmen gambled on fourth-and-4 from the 23-yard line, turning the ball over on downs with 3:03 left to play. After an Athens three-and-out, Danville began its final drive from the Athens 49-yard line, and despite a pass interference call moving the Ironmen to the Wildcats' 35, Athens safety Austin Lister swatted away a final heave on fourth-and-10 with 55 seconds to play as Danville failed time and time again to move the ball through the air.
"I was scanning the quarterback," Lister said. "I knew where they were going. I knew they were going deep."
The win moves Athens (10-1) to the second round of the district playoffs while Danville (7-4) wraps up its season.
"That was two great defenses," Athens coach Jack Young said. "We lost a heartbreaker at (Danville's field) three years ago, and they just lost a heartbreaker here now."
The Ironmen racked up 235 yards on the ground throughout the night, but couldn't move the ball through the air when it was needed most.
"Missed opportunities," Danville coach Mitch Keiser said of the loss. "And that was the story of the game."
The two teams traded turnovers on the first two drives of the game, and once the chaotic start was stifled it was the Wildcats who took early control.
Barry scored one of his two rushing touchdowns with 8:46 left in the first quarter, set up by a 37-yard punt return by Kalen Keathley, and after Austin Lister's kick Athens held the first lead at 7-0.
Danville benefited from a Trent Hilkert interception return to the Athens 6-yard line with the first quarter dwindling, but a strip sack by Luke Newman would keep Danville off the scoreboard.
Barry and Athens came out firing in the second quarter, and after an eight-play drive, Barry found tight end Bill Bennett on a slant for the 4-yard score to put Athens in control at 14-0.
Danville wouldn't roll over, matching Athens' 14 points in a mere seven seconds. Gannon Feldmann and Trent Hilkert led the Ironmen down the field in seven plays with Feldmann scoring from a yard out. On the ensuing kickoff, Athens muffed the ball in the shadow of its own goal post and Danville's Peyton Persing pounced on it for the score. Peyton Riley was responsible for both extra points, sending the game into the half tied at 14.
"We knew mistakes were going to happen," Barry said. "We knew they would score and we would have to make up for it."
After trading punts in the third quarter, Danville took its first lead with 6:30 left as Riley booted a 28-yard field goal after a nine-play, 48-yard drive stalled at the Athens 11.
Barry would come back firing. After losing Keathley due to injury late in the second quarter, Barry went 3-for-4 on the ensuing drive, finding Lister, Luke Newman and Bennett before scoring on the ground himself to give Athens the lead with 5:05 to play.
"Emotions were riding high," Barry said. "I knew these guys could do it, we had to pick up the slack (with Keathley out)."
Lister's extra point was blocked, setting up the dramatic Danville scramble as the clock dwindled.
Barry finished the game with 146 yards and a score on 9-of-17 passing with two interceptions.
For the Ironmen, Hilkert carried 16 times for 113 yards.