The Annville-Cleona football team did what it does. Most of the time, that was more than good enough.
But perhaps most importantly, the Dutchmen became the best version of themselves because of it.
On a brisk Friday night at Lebanon Alumni Stadium, Annville-Cleona’s terrific football season came to an end with a 35-14 loss to Camp Hill in the semifinals of the District Three Class AA playoffs. The up-tempo Lions started fast, and the Dutchmen never really got anything consistently going offensively.
Annville-Cleona, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and co-champions of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s Section Five, concluded its campaign with a 7-4 overall mark. Friday evening represented the Dutchmen’s fifth District Three postseason appearance in the last nine years.
Fourth-seeded Camp Hill improved to 6-5 on the year and marched into next weekend’s District Three title tilt. Lion quarterback Luke Branstetter threw four touchdown passes to four different teammates, and ran one in himself.
“Before the season, we had high expectations,” said Annville-Cleona head coach Matt Gingrich. “But after six consecutive bad quarters early in the season, I really thought we might not win another game. The fact that we accomplished what we did, I’m super proud of these kids.”
“It was at halftime of the Littlestown game (a 33-21 road loss) and I just said, ‘We’ve got to do what we do,’” continued Gingrich. “’We’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to execute, but most important, we have to have fun.’ They held that atmosphere the rest of the year.”
“Going into the season, we had high expectations,” said Annville-Cleona’s emotional leader, running back Cael Harter. “We wanted to get back to this spot. We knew what we could do. I think the turning point was the Littlestown game, when we weren’t playing up to our ability. Ever since then, the season has been completely turned around.
“I’ll remember these guys battling,” added Harter, “and the young guys stepping up. We lost those two early games, but we dug out of it and battled. I’ll definitely remember the section championship. We did what we could and played hard.”
After being staggered by Camp Hill’s quick start, Annville-Cleona found its footing 3:49 before halftime and pulled to within 21-7 of the lead. Reserve quarterback Wyatt Mase hooked up with receiver Jonathon Shay for a 68-yard touchdown toss.
“I really thought we had a good chance to win,” said Gingrich. “Up front we really didn’t get much push. When we lost this year, we got beat up front. They (linemen) did a great job most of the year. We didn’t accentuate our positives.”
“We didn’t play up to our abilities,” said Harter. “We couldn’t get anything going. It’s a team effort. We all didn’t do our jobs. At the end of the day, nothing went our way. We battled the best we could and did everything Coach asked.”
Down 28-7 late in the third quarter, the Dutchmen once again pulled to within two scores of the Lions. A-C’s gigantic 18-play, 67-yard march ended with quarterback Cam Connelly’s four-yard burst to paydirt.
“I told our guys at halftime that we were in a good spot,” said Gingrich. “We didn’t play our best and we were only down two touchdowns. We just struggled to make a read and get the ball where it was supposed to go. We did steady it. But the problem was the offense didn’t do what it needed to do.”
“At halftime, Coach just said, ‘Keep the energy up,’” said Harter. “He did some stuff on the whiteboard to get us going. He told us, ‘keep battling the best you can and see what happens.’”
Early on, Camp Hill pretty much did whatever it wanted to do offensively. Throwing the ball all over the yard and gaining yardage in chunks, the Lions scored 1:36 into the contest and led 14-0 with 5:30 left in the opening quarter.
And when Branstetter collaborated with Kobe Moore on a four-yard touchdown pass, Camp Hill had a 21-0 lead 7:09 before the break.
“They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect,” said Gingrich. “We didn’t do a good job of lining up defensively. They did have some really talented kids, but we did not have the ability to cover top-shelf talent. We worked on it all week. The people we had out there are the best we have.”
“We clearly were not ready for this game,” Gingrich added. “We just didn’t match up and we didn’t understand the principles.”
“They definitely caught us off guard,” said Harter of the Lions. “Our defense had a hard time lining up with them. It was nothing different. We just couldn’t cover.”
Annville-Cleona ran 50 running plays and gained 121 yards on the ground.
Parise completed 23 of 32 pass attempts for 267 yards.
The game was played at Lebanon Alumni Stadium due to ongoing construction at Annville-Cleona High School.
Head Coach: Matt Gingrich
Assistant Coaches: Joe Heckard, Greg Keener, Joe Shay, Jon Bopp, Drew Speraw, Cody Dodson, Jonathan Lum, Mike Miller
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