In its previous game against Solanco, the Elizabethtown Area High School football team saw its homecoming night end in a dramatic loss. This time around, the Bears turned the tables and ruined another school’s homecoming with a huge come-from-behind victory.
Down 19-0 late in the first half at Garden Spot on Friday, Oct. 4, Elizabethtown recovered in style, scoring 27 unanswered points to knock off the Spartans 27-19. It was the 21st consecutive defeat for Garden Spot. Meanwhile, the Bears ended a four-game losing streak, improving to 3-4 on the year and putting themselves back in the mix for the Class 5A playoff chase in District 3.
“The guys kept fighting up front,” head coach Andy Breault said. “They kept blocking to the whistle, and it showed in the second half. We kind of had the momentum going into halftime, and we regrouped. I told them it wasn’t over, and they believed. They came out and did what they had to do.”
Things seemingly started out well for Elizabethtown after junior Riley Drager took the opening kickoff into Spartans territory. However, on the third play from scrimmage, senior Leon Allen got stripped for a fumble on a screen pass by Garden Spot junior Luke Shirk, with fellow junior Brandon Swope falling on the ball to set up the Spartans in Bears territory.
Junior running back John Dykie moved the ball well on the next few plays, setting up junior quarterback Jesse Martin for a 16-yard touchdown run … that was called back due to a holding penalty. It didn’t matter; on the following play, Jesse Martin scored from 23 yards out on essentially the same play. Sophomore kicker Walker Martin’s point-after kick sailed wide right due to high winds, leaving the score at 6-0.
Elizabethtown’s ensuing series was quickly derailed when sophomore QB Pat Gilhool was run out of bounds for a sack on a rollout, leading to a three and out. Jesse Martin and Dykie would tag team on Garden Spot’s possession, taking the ball 55 yards down the field on eight plays and capping it off with a 5-yard Jesse Martin TD run.
The Bears went three and out again on their next series late in the first quarter. The Spartans moved the ball well initially from there, with Dykie even converting a fourth-and-short try on the first play of the second. Elizabethtown’s defense held from there though, forcing a Jesse Martin punt that went out of bounds at the Bears 15-yard line.
Gilhool got sacked on the first play of the following drive for a loss of 9 yards. A deep pass to senior Cole Rice on second down initially looked to be completed, but the ball popped out when Rice fell to the ground. Gilhool was nearly sacked for a safety on third down but was able to throw the ball away in time, leading to a third straight punt.
Garden Spot started in nice field position at the Bears 42-yard line. Dykie converted a third-down run, then pulled down a wide-open 26-yard TD pass from Jesse Martin to further extend the Spartans’ lead, though Walker Martin again missed on the extra-point try.
There was a scary moment on the ensuing kickoff. Elizabethtown sophomore Brandonn Frey fielded a squib kick and was hit hard by Garden Spot junior Bryce Mercer on the return, resulting in a helmet-to-helmet hit that left both players woozy. They were thankfully able to walk off the field with some assistance, though neither returned to the game.
Perhaps invigorated by Frey’s injury, the Bears offense finally came to life. Drager took a swing pass 22 yards on the opening play for his team’s first first-down of the night, then picked up a first down on third-and-6 with a draw.
On a later third down, Rice reeled in a twisting 20-yard pass to put Elizabethtown at the Garden Spot 1-yard line. He would score on a pass from Gilhool on the next play. Like Walker Martin, junior kicker Cade Denlinger saw his extra-point kick go wide right due to the wind, leaving the score at 19-6 with just over two minutes left before halftime.
The Spartans missed a prime opportunity for another TD when Jesse Martin overthrew Dykie on a deep pass early in their next drive. They wound up having to punt away … then disaster struck. Junior Bobby Walters blocked the kick, with senior Cole Hitz recovering and returning to the Garden Spot 8.
Drager ran 7 yards to the 1-yard line on the first play, and two plays later, with the clock ticking down in the half, Gilhool fooled the defense with a rollout run, walking into the end zone untouched. The TD cut the Spartans’ lead to 19-13 heading into the break.
Garden Spot picked up just one first down to start the second half before Dykie was stuffed on a third-down run by Walters. Jesse Martin actually ran for a first down on a fake punt afterward, but offsetting penalties forced him to punt it away for real on the next play. A 46-yard bomb to senior Anthony Pagan looked to get the Bears going on the next drive, but Gilhool was stopped short of the markers on a fourth-down run for a turnover on downs.
The Spartans punted away again on the following series, with a great Rice return into Garden Spot territory getting called back due to a block in the back penalty. A facemask during a Drager run and a Rice reverse run made up for that, but the Bears would eventually find themselves in a fourth-and-16 scenario late in the quarter.
They came up big from there. Gilhool found a wide-open Drager for 27 yards on the last play of the third to put them at the Spartans 3 to start the fourth. A few plays later, he scrambled in for a TD with a beautiful dive to the left pylon. Denlinger’s extra-point gave Elizabethtown a 20-19 lead, its first of the game.
Jesse Martin got a first down on a third-and-short run to try and get Garden Spot back into the game. He nearly threw that away with a near interception dropped by Bears junior Brandon Lewis two plays later. However, the Spartans ended up mishandling a potential big play of their own on third down; senior Ethan Good got behind the Elizabethtown secondary on a deep pass from Jesse Martin but dropped it, leading to his team’s fourth straight punt. The Bears would go three and out on their next series though.
Sophomore Riley Runnels picked up a huge sack on Jesse Martin to force another Spartans punt afterward. That punt never came; Jesse Martin got swarmed before he could get the kick off, resulting in a turnover on downs that gave the Bears great field position at the Garden Spot 23. Allen put them inside the 10 with a 10-yard run, and Rice would score on a 9-yard jet sweep from there, putting Elizabethtown up 27-19.
“(Special teams) coach (Steve) Remley put some different stuff in this week,” Breault said. “We were liking some of their tendencies on special teams. We almost broke a couple of kick returns, and we came up with a different punt rush than we had previously.”
Garden Spot tried a double pass on the first play of the next drive, but Dykie underthrew Good on a deep pass. The latter dropped his second long bomb on the following play as well, and the Spartans elected to punt away with just under three minutes left in the game.
The Bears appeared to have completely iced the game when Rice scored on another jet sweep, this time from 46 yards out, but the TD was called back due to a block out of bounds. It didn’t hurt them too much. Allen and Rice converted a handful of first downs, forcing Garden Spot to use up all of its timeouts. Gilhool kneeled the clock out from there for the Elizabethtown victory.
Dykie (19 carries, 61 yards) and Jesse Martin (22 carries, 132 yards, 2 TDs) accounted for all but seven of the Spartans’ yards from scrimmage. They combined for 152 rushing yards in the first half alone. However, Elizabethtown slowed them down significantly in the second half, allowing just 41 yards and forcing five punts, including the aborted attempt that led to the final TD. Aside from the 26-yard TD to Dykie, Martin (2 for 11, 30 yards) had little success through the air.
“It’s a one-two punch,” Breault said, crediting his team’s defensive line and linebackers for the second-half turnaround. “One guy’s running one way, and the other’s going the opposite way. It’s tough to stop, and they’re both big guys too. It’s hard just to bring them down. My hat’s off to that squad over there. They’re gonna win some games. Their coach has them playing hard.”
Gilhool’s passing numbers (6 for 17, 118 yards) weren’t the prettiest, but he did use his legs more than previous weeks, as evidenced by his two rushing TDs. Rice (6 carries, 79 yards, TD; 2 catches, 21 yards, TD) and Drager (12 carries, 29 yards; 2 catches, 49 yards) showed off their dual-threat talents, while Allen (8 carries, 30 yards) made up for his opening drive fumble with some key runs late.
“The kids have responded well in practice in the last four weeks,” Breault said. “It’s not always easy to come out and perform after losses. They were upbeat and still gave 100 percent. It says a lot about their character. They didn’t give up after being down 19 points after a four-game losing streak. They could’ve easily packed it in.”
With three games left in the regular season, the Bears still have a realistic shot at qualifying for districts, though they’ll have to win at least two of those contests to stay alive. That starts at Penn Manor on Friday, Oct. 11. The Comets are just 2-5 this season, but they’ve played competitively against some tough opponents as well.
Anything can happen in high school football. The winless Spartans putting Elizabethtown on its heels is proof of that. But the Bears finally have some mojo on their side. They’re hoping to keep it from here on out.
“We’re gonna see what they’re (Penn Manor) doing on film,” Breault said. “Trying to get some injured guys healthy and back on the field. (Garden Spot) brought some pressure tonight, and we picked a lot of it up. We just have to play our game.”