Ten years. It’s been 10 years since the Elizabethtown Area High School football team has been in the field for the District 3 playoffs. Now, that drought has finally been erased.
The Bears hosted Conestoga Valley in the regular season finale at Thompson Field on Friday, Oct. 26. With Elizabethtown ranked 12th in the Class 5A standings and the Buckskins at 13th, the winner would essentially secure a postseason berth, while the loser would most likely be eliminated. Though the game was tight early on, the Bears were able to pull away by the end and cruise to a 30-3 win, punching their ticket to the playoffs.
“It feels great,” head coach Andy Breault said. “The kids were a little hungry tonight, and they came out and played a good game all the way around. Special teams, defense, offense… we got a couple of breaks here and there, (but) they worked hard all through the season.”
Elizabethtown started the game with a bang, with junior Cole Rice taking the opening kickoff to the Conestoga Valley 43-yard line. Senior Zach Frank got the Bears into the red zone with a couple of runs, but the offense stalled out at the Buckskins 14. Sophomore Cade Denlinger missed a 32-yard field goal, giving Conestoga Valley the ball back.
The Buckskins picked up one first down on their next drive but were stopped short on fourth down with a nice tackle by senior Bears linebacker Tyler Lanza for a turnover on downs. Elizabethtown drove quickly on the next series, with senior quarterback Cole Patrick finding sophomore Luke Pierson for 17 yards on a third-down conversion, then hooking up with senior Cole Livingston for a 17-yard touchdown.
Conestoga Valley used some quick passes, a solid run from sophomore Julius Johnson and a great third-down throw from junior QB Bradley Stoltzfus to senior Gavin Horning to move into Bears territory. However, a holding call stalled the drive, though a punt from senior punter Joe Cardina went out at the Bears 10-yard line.
The Bears moved the ball well on the following series, converting two third-down tries on 13 plays. Patrick also connected with senior Alex Diahn for gains of 26 and 18. However, they stalled inside the Buckskins 10, so Denlinger made a 26-yard field goal to make the score 10-0.
A Johnson run and a long Stoltzfus pass to Horning on third down moved Conestoga Valley past midfield. Penalties halted the drive though, so the Buckskins punted away, albeit with Cardina pinning the Bears at their own 5. A false start penalty hurt Elizabethtown, forcing a punt from senior Collin Hudak punt in return. Conestoga Valley ran out of time in the half, leaving the score at 10-0 in the Bears’ favor at the break.
Conestoga Valley took the opening second-half kickoff into Elizabethtown territory and got inside the red zone on a catch-and-run from senior Parker Graff. Senior Brandon Fotibu made three straight tackles to stop the drive, however, leading to a 29-yard field goal from Cardina.
Elizabethtown started slowly on the following drive but had some big plays to set up a score: first came a 13-yard pass to Livingston on third down, then a 36-yard pass to a wide-open Pierson, who was tackled just shy of the end zone. Rice got in for the TD from 1 yard out on the next play to extend the lead to 17-3.
Stoltzfus got the Buckskins into Elizabethtown territory with a QB keeper on third down, but his offense stalled from there. Johnson was stopped short of the markers on fourth-and-short for a turnover on downs. The Bears drove deep into Conestoga Valley territory before Patrick was picked off by sophomore Buckskin Zach Fisher on a tipped pass near the end of the third quarter.
Pinned deep on its own side of the field, Conestoga Valley went three-and-out. Pierson returned the ball to the Buckskins 29 on the punt. Elizabethtown didn’t move the ball far, however, with Patrick getting sacked on fourth down for a loss of 15 yards. Two plays later, Stoltzfus was picked by Bears senior Amos Kollie, who returned the ball to the Conestoga Valley 41-yard line.
The Bears scored five plays later, thanks to a juggling catch by Livingston for a 20-yard TD, though Denlinger was wide right on the point-after try. Livingston then intercepted a Stoltzfus pass on the next series and returned it 37 yards for another score. Conestoga Valley went three-and-out afterward, and Elizabethtown ran out the clock from there to get the victory.
Offensively, Elizabethtown had perhaps its most balanced night of the season. While the Bears’ passing yardage was over 200 yards as per usual, they also rushed for 138 yards on the ground, something that Breault had planned to emphasize from the start against Conestoga Valley’s stop unit.
“They mixed up their defense a bit,” he said. “They weren’t blitzing as much as I thought they were gonna. They dropped more guys into coverage, so that kind of opened up the run. Guys were blocking well up front. The two guards, (sophomore) Jett Kelly and (junior) Adnan Traore, pulling out did a great job, and there were good down blocks from the tackles and center.”
Patrick finished with 224 yards, 2 TDs and an INT on 19 for 29 passing. Both scores went to Livingston (4 catches, 58 yards; 5 carries, 34 yards). Pierson led the way in receiving with 8 catches for 83 yards, while Diahn chipped in with 3 receptions for 46 yards. Rice (4 carries, 23 yards) had a TD on the ground, but it was Frank (17 carries, 101 yards) who really helped bolster the Bears attack.
“He’s been patient,” Breault said. “We’ve been throwing the ball a lot, so he does a lot of blocking in the backfield, and he’s pretty good at protecting Cole P. It’s a little reward for him for all the hard work he’s done throughout the season, so it’s nice to get him going for 100 yards.”
Meanwhile, the Bears defense had by far its best game of the year, holding the Buckskins to 220 total offensive yards and just 3 points. Lanza led the way in tackles with 17, with Traore in second with 11 and junior Elijah Eberly getting 7. Kollie and Livingston’s interceptions were key turning points as well, both coming off of tipped passes. Breault credited defensive coordinator Pat Denneker for coming up with an effective game-plan.
“(He’s) throwing a lot of different stuff at their offenses, and everybody’s doing their job,” he said. “Covering their guys, covering their zones… it’s a complete team effort right now on defense. Everyone’s doing what they need to do and not worrying about what someone else is doing. It’s really nice to see them play as a unit.”
Stoltzfus finished the game with 159 yards and 2 INTs on 15 for 28 passing. He also ran for 27 yards on 9 carries. Johnson led Conestoga Valley in rushing, gaining 29 yards on 10 carries. Cardina was effective on offense in addition to his kicking, catching 5 passes for 58 yards. Horning added 7 receptions for 56 yards.
The victory gives Elizabethtown a final regular season record of 6-4 for the third year in a row. The Bears finished at No. 8 in Class 5A and are now scheduled to host No. 9 Governor Mifflin in the first round on Friday, Nov. 2. When they last played in districts back in 2008, they were the No. 16 seed in Class 4A, losing in the first round to Wilson, the No. 1 seed who eventually won the district title and went to the state semifinals.
In any case, Elizabethtown will have a week off like normal before heading back to the gridiron. Breault’s philosophy of “one game at a time” has never been more prominent than it is now. If he and the rest of the team played their cards right, the Bears could have their first postseason victory since 2007.
“We’ll break down the film and see what we’re going up against,” Breault said. “We’ll just game-plan together and execute it throughout the week. Then we see how it looks Thursday, and if we have to make any tweaks, we will.”