By: John Knebels
Photos: Kathy Leister
LANCASTER, PA –La Salle and Manheim Township High Schools played a high school football game on a cold, breezy Friday night.
There were tackles, turnovers, punts, penalties, touchdowns, a winning team, and a losing team. There was even a marching band and an annoyingly upbeat play-by-play announcer.
This is not fake news.
Although cause for celebration and praise, that the Explorers toppled the Blue Streaks by a misleadingly close 35-27 was arguably secondary to the overall importance of the event.
For a little more than two and a half hours, the coronavirus Covid-19 bully was punished for its constant refusal to play nice, and was thus commanded to turn away and sit in the corner while teenagers gleefully threw their bodies around a kelly green artificial turf while coaches barked instructions with typical vim and vigor.
But there was nothing artificial about the effort from both the visiting Explorers and the District 3 juggernaut Blue Streaks.
“I kept saying all week that I just wanted to get to 7:01,” said La Salle coach John Steinmetz, referring to one minute after the scheduled kickoff. “Just get the game going. The kids played well, which was great.”
Of course, there were numerous reminders that Covid-19 remains a force that can’t be ignored.
Compelled to follow the contest virtually, spectators were forbidden to attend, leaving a foreboding vision of uninhabited metal stands. Some coaches and officials donned masks, as did reporters and photographers. Honoring social distance guidelines, post-game interviews were conducted at least six feet apart.
Coaches continually reminded their players to separate from one another. Most complied; some seemed to simply go through the motions, opting instead to crowd close to the action and verbally encourage their teammates.
For La Salle, their encouragement worked.
Junior Sam Brown scored four touchdowns – three via run and one by reception. The modest tailback accrued 159 yards on 17 carries with TD jaunts of 28, 20, and 66 yards. His 25-yard scoring snare with 6:59 remaining in regulation capped a brilliant 13-play, 80-yard drive that ate 5:01 off the clock and upped La Salle’s lead to 35-20.
The touchdown also thwarted Manheim’s momentum.
Trailing 28-6 inside the final minute of the third quarter and seemingly finished, the Blue Streaks had scored twice in a span of 20 seconds and somehow only trailed by 28-20. Then the Explorers’ offensive line went to work in similar fashion to an earlier 10-play, 80-yard march culminated with a 20-yard TD by Brown on the first play of the second quarter.
“Sam hasn’t even been tackled this year,” said an impressed Steinmetz. “We haven’t hit live at all. I thought our offense came through when we needed it. There’s no better defense than a good offense. Those guys did a great job, especially the last drive where they closed things out. It was fun to win a close one.”
Brown extolled his teammates.
“It wasn’t that bad getting used to everything,” said Brown. “It was really important, especially for the older guys. My offensive line – I can’t do it without them guys – and my outside receivers made a lot of big blocks. It feels really good to get out and play, especially with everything that’s been going on.”
Brown was referring to the tragic loss of senior teammate Isaiah Turner, who died after practice on September 4. The Explorers have dedicated their season to a young man affectionately labeled “a gentle giant.”
Before the national anthem, a moment of silence was requested to honor Turner’s memory. On La Salle’s first offensive play, 10 of the 11 starters lined up at the 38-yard line. The spot at left guard was left vacant out of respect for their fallen comrade. A five-yard offside penalty was called, but Manheim coach Mark Evans classily declined.
Turns out that Steinmetz and Evans had discussed La Salle’s planned tribute well before the game. The officials were also aware of the plan and were asked to call the game correctly and assess a violation.
“Manheim’s coach,” said Steinmetz, “was very gracious.”
From that point, La Salle’s offense in no way reflected a unit that had yet to even properly practice. The Explorers racked up 361 yards of offense, with 251 of those coming on 33 hauls for a gaudy 7.6 average per carry.
In addition to Brown’s contribution, senior Tim Mehlmann gained 43 yards and a touchdown on nine carries while adding two catches for 10 yards. Senior Justin Machita caught a pair of 10-yard passes. Before injuring his knee on the penultimate play of the first half, junior quarterback Alan Paturzo had rushed for 37 yards on five carries while completing 3 of 6 passes for 56 yards.
Taking over in the second half, senior quarterback Gavin Daly– who as a receiver had issued a key block that helped Brown score one of his four touchdowns – completed six of eight passes for 54 yards and the 25-yard TD flick to Brown.
“The coaches had a good game plan coming in,” said Paturzo, supported by crutches and a brace on his leg with what could be a season-ending malady. “We executed it. We stepped up when we had to.”
So too did the special teams and defense.
In addition to a combined bone-jarring hit by junior Brennen Miller and senior Jalen Hanton on the opening kickoff that set the tone for a fiercely physical battle, the Explorers gang-blocked a punt and recovered at the Manheim three, resulting in a three-yard plunge by Mehlmann on the last play of the second quarter.
Avoiding periodic strong gusts of wind, junior placekicker/punter Santiago Sturla nailed all five of his extra points and kept the Blue Streaks off guard with a series of strong kickoffs and punts, including a 46-yard boot with no return.
On defense, a steady stream of timely contributions by the line, linebackers, and secondary frustrated the Blue Streaks. Although senior end Paul Jennings, senior linebacker Shane Hagan, and backs Hanton, Miller, junior Ryan Moore and senior Harrison Himes gave Manheim headaches, senior end Tim Barrett and junior linebackers Chris Thompson and Abdul Carter appeared unstoppable at various points.
“You just gotta make a play and have an unbreakable mentality,” said Carter. “There’s a time to make big plays. We stepped up.
“I was really excited, but I thought I could play much better. I missed some opportunities. Next game, I wanna make more plays.”
Since the medical landscape changes daily, maybe there will be a next game, and maybe not.
But for one evening on a cold summer night, a high school football game was played, and it was played well.
Just like the olden days.