By Frank Foreman
West Middlesex and Cochranton went punch for punch Friday night in the District 10 Class A quarterfinal playoffs. The heavyweight bout nearly went the distance, but in the end, the Big Reds had just enough to knock the Cardinals out of the playoffs with a 46-32 win at Hickory High School Stadium.
This wasn’t the way Cochranton head coach Nate Liberty expected a solid season to end. His team was finally coming together at the right time of year, and were on a mission to prove that the Cardinals belonged in the playoffs and could compete with anybody.
Friday night, they proved that in a big way.
“The kids played hard, and I feel bad for the seniors, because we were just started gelling at the end,” Liberty said after the tough loss. “The good thing is, the Cochranton program is still building. We’re not the doormats, and we didn’t get killed in the playoffs.”
The 14-point victory for West Middlesex doesn’t do Cochranton justice, as the game was tied at 24-24 with 4:10 left in the third quarter. How the game got to that point was downright crazy, as big play after big play lit up the field. But the biggest of those came on a special teams mistake by the Cardinals.
Cochranton held a 12-10 halftime lead following a tight first half that ended with an incredible individual effort by Jesse Staudt late in the second quarter on a 38-yard touchdown catch and run. That momentum looked like it would carry into halftime. But on the opening series of the second half, the Cardinals provided the game’s turning point.
West Middlesex forced the Cards to punt. Standing in a tight formation with quarterback and punter Chad Eisenhooth taking the snap, the senior stepped to his right and kicked the ball off a blocker. The ball shot straight into the air and the Big Reds’ Dillon Fair came down with it and took off for the touchdown.
In terms of how to start a second half, the miscue was a worst case scenario.
“That was my fault,” Liberty said. “That was dumb, and I shouldn’t have called it. We should have called a timeout because we had somebody in there that wasn’t supposed to be in there. He lined up wrong and it’s my fault.”
While calling the miscue the turning point may seem odd considering the Cardinals bounced right back on the very first play of the ensuing drive, it was those six points that proved costly by the game’s end.
Needing to respond, Eisenhooth fired a beautiful pass to Staudt for an 84-yard touchdown on the next play to put the Cardinals ahead 18-16.
That lead would be short-lived as both teams traded scores to even the game late in the third quarter, the tying touchdown coming on yet another Eisenhooth to Staudt connection to make it 24-24.
West Middlesex answered on its next possession. A shovel pass from Trey Staunch to Eric Lucich went 57 yards to put the Big Reds back on top 31-24.
The Cardinals had found a way to fight back each and every time it would get behind Friday, put could not rebound and was forced to punt on the following possession.
The Big Reds went for the dagger in the heart, putting together an 11-play, 75-yard drive that was capped off with 37-yard touchdown run by Lucich. In the middle of the drive, Cochranton forced a punting situation, but jumped offside while the Big Reds were in formation, allowing the drive to continue. The lineman jumped at the line, but got back to his position without any movement from the offensive line, however the officials enforced the penalty after much discussion, crushing the Cardinals in the process.
Cochranton made one final push, when Eisenhooth scored from 1-yard out to cut the lead to 38-32. But a late score from West Middlesex sealed the game.
Eisenhooth had a big night, throwing for 312 yards and four touchdowns, three of which went to Staudt. The senior receiver finished with 156 yards, but unfortunately for the Cardinals it just wasn’t enough.
“I told them I love them,” Liberty said following the loss. “I told them we’re not going to be anybody’s homecoming game anymore. We’re just going to continue to build and build and keep it going.”