COCHRANTON — Cochranton senior quarterback James Groover sat on the steps leading up to the Cardinals’ locker room, the white numbers on his jersey smeared with mud.
Behind him, his jubilant teammates were shouting out the chorus to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” But Groover wasn’t joining in.
Instead, he leaned against a cinder block wall in the stairwell in obvious pain, still wearing the shoulder pads he couldn’t take off without help.
“I don’t know, they said it was my collarbone,” he reported.
Yet he sat there a winner, having just helped carry the Cardinals to the postseason.
In what was likely a do-or-die scenario, the Redbirds came from behind to beat Region 2 opponent Eisenhower 36-28.
The win vaulted Cochranton into second place in the Region 2 standings, and most likely earned this “rebuilt” squad their third straight trip to the District 10 playoffs.
“We definitely dug deep for this one,” said senior lineman Evan Miller. “Everybody was making a point. There was a lot of talk that this was going to be a rebuilding year. We lost a lot of skill. People were going to have to step up. And people stepped up.”
The Cardinals go into the final week of the regular season with a 5-3 overall record and a 5-2 mark in Region 2. They trail region champion Cambridge Springs and are tied with Iroquois with the same league record. But Cochranton has the tiebreaker over Iroquois, having beaten the Braves 28-14 in Week 5.
“That’s kudos to the kids,” said Cochranton head coach Nate Liberty. “That’s kudos to the kids that stuck with us, that believed in us. There are 24 of us. And not one time have we said in the paper or complained about our numbers. And that’s because our kids are tough and they want to play.”
Things didn’t start out so great for Cochranton however. On Eisenhower’s first play of the game, quarterback Louie Head hit receiver Jarrett Johnson for an eight-yard pass. Johnson turned and lateraled the ball to teammate Logan Bellardo. And Bellardo went 61 yards to the end zone to give the Knights and early 7-0 lead.
That play seemed to stagger Cochranton for the next couple series.
“That initial play really got us,” said Cards senior Cameron Woods. “None of us saw that coming. They got us. ... After a team gets a big play like that on the first play, you’re like, ‘Oh crap. We’re down already. What do we do?’
“And then they scored again.”
Cochranton turned the ball over on downs. Then Eisenhower went right back to work with another scoring drive. On a fourth-and-two at Cochranton’s 27, Head tossed a strike to receiver Jaydon Hayes in the end zone, which made it a 14-0 game.
Cochranton then got two plays into its next series when a fumble gave the ball back to Eisenhower.
“We had to do something,” Woods.
Woods provided the Cardinals with the ‘something’ they were looking for. He picked off a pass from Head and returned it 37 yards into Knights territory.
Two plays later, Nate Slawson completed a 34-yard pass Jacob Yarnell, which brought the Cards down to the 1. Groover pushed it into the end zone on the next play. And then ran in the two-pointer to make it 14-8.
The two teams then spent the rest of the half trading touchdowns.
John Pascuzzi scored on a nine-yard rush to make it 21-8 Eisenhower.
Cochranton answered with Groover’s second one-yard TD of the game. And a Yarnell two-point rush made it 21-16.
Eisenhower then finished off a length drive with a six-yard touchdown pass from Head to Johnson, making it 28-16 and leaving Cochranton with just 2:16 to respond.
Yet, respond they did. Groover connected with Peter Jamieson on a 31-yard pass. Jamieson was hit in the air making the catch, but landed on his feet and just kept running to the end zone to make it 28-22 at the half.
“I think we actually won it there the last part of the first half,” said Cardinals lineman Evan Miller. “We started picking it up. We started to feel the momentum swing. We came in at halftime knowing that we were going to win the game. Definitely.”
The Cards proceeded to do just that.
First, the defense worked to shut down that Eisenhower offense. The Knights had 265 yards in the first half. They were held to just 99 in the second, thanks to some relentless pressure on Head in the backfield.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals just ground the clock with some hard-nosed running by several backs — Groover (15 carries, 113 yards for the game), Woods (12 carries, 107 yards), Seth Brenot (nine carries, 29 yards), Logan Shreve (six carries, 34 yards) among them.
Late in the third, Woods broke a 33-yarder to midfield. Then three plays later, Groover busted a 34-yarder around the left side, cut right and went into the end zone to tie the game at 28-28.
Shreve barreled in for the two-pointer, giving Cochranton a 30-28 lead.
Cochranton’s next series lasted 10 plays and went 57 yards, and ended with Groover zooming down the right side of the field 20 yards for his fourth rushing TD of the night, which made it 36-28.
The Cardinals’ defense stopped Eisenhower on fourth down on the ensuing series.
Then the offense converted two third downs and a fourth-and-five to maintain possession and run out the clock.