Cheltenham edged Cocalico 56-49 in a wild PIAA 5A state semifinal Friday night at HersheyPark Stadium. The Panthers have earned a date with Archbishop Wood in Friday’s state title game. It is the program’s first ever trip to the state finals. (Photos provided courtesy of Kevin Kaufman/Cheltenham High School)
#1-1 CHELTENHAM 56 #3-1 COCALICO 49
HERSHEY – In the midst of a jubilant postgame celebration, Hershey bars rained down on the turf at HersheyPark Stadium. The Panthers – as a result of their electrifying win in Friday’s PIAA 5A state semifinal – will return to Hershey for a date with Archbishop Wood in next Friday’s state title game.
Assistant coach Spentley Toran – Hershey bar in hand – said to no one in particular, “Can you believe it? Dreams come true.”
“This means a lot,” senior TJ Harris said. “Cheltenham has never been this far ever, and then on top of that, knowing I’m playing the school I used to go to – that’s even more motivation.”
Emotions ran high on the Panthers’ sideline, but while his teammates celebrated, Harris laid down on the turf for a quiet moment to remember a beloved relative.
“I was thinking of my cousin (Tymir) who died last summer,” Harris said. “I was just thinking – I promised myself I’d play for him, and I did.”
In Friday’s high stakes contest, the Panthers played with their hearts on their sleeves.
“We had a lot of intensity this game, and we knew that we trusted each other and we had to make the plays that we could,” senior Jamir Barnes said.
“The mindset was basically – we came too far to stop now,” senior Nate Edwards said. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet – we’re taking it one game at a time.
“This was a very – I want to say fun game because we were competing and I love the competition. They scored, we scored back, and it was a fight. They kept their heads up. I’m proud of the other team – I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that, but they fought just as much as we fought.”
Harris, Barnes and Edwards – along with quarterback Adonis Hunter – were game-changers in a contest that saw the Panthers accumulate more than 500 yards of total offense. The Eagles weren’t far behind, amassing almost 500 yards of their own – all on the ground in a contest that featured one big play after another.
“We knew that coming in,” Cheltenham coach Ryan Nase said. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be over 50, but it just so happened to be. Hey, I don’t care how we win, what it takes. As long as we win, I’m fine with it.”
Barnes accounted for 285 yards of total offense – 158 on the ground and the rest in the air. Edwards added 101 rushing yards and three touchdowns while Harris had five receptions for 104 yards and two touchdowns. He also returned a kickoff for a TD. Hunter threw for more than 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It was Edwards who scored the dramatic game-winner, breaking a 49-49 tie when he scored from four yards out with 45 seconds remaining to cap an 80-yard scoring drive after the Eagles missed a 28-yard field goal for the lead. The Panthers sealed the win when - with the Eagles attempting a lateral - they recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff.
“I saw they weren’t fast enough to catch me,” Edwards said. “I asked my coach, begged my coach – please give me the ball, feed me. The outcome is a win.”
“At the end of the game, we give the ball to Nate Edwards because he’s the fastest kid on the field,” Nase said. “I don’t care who we play, when we play them – he’s going to be the fastest kid on the field.
“I think that’s the best part about our offense. We don’t come in with ‘We need to do this.’ We’re going to have plans, and we know who can do what. We’re going to see what the defense does, and we’re going to take what they give us. We can go about a million different directions, and that’s what’s awesome.”
The Panthers needed all their options in another wild one that saw the two teams combine for 34 points in the fourth quarter. During an especially crazy one-minute span, the two teams scored on three straight plays.
“In typical Cheltenham fashion,” Nase said. “We never do things the ordinary way. I’m sure there will be some sort of craziness next week too.
“That’s just Cheltenham in 2019, and to be honest with you, that’s Ryan Nase, and for good or for bad, that’s what our team does.”
The Panthers took a tenuous 36-35 lead into the final quarter, and that disappeared two minutes into the frame when Cody Shay scored from two yards out. The Eagles’ two-point attempt failed, but they led 41-36.
That lead was short-lived as Harris worked his magic, racing down the far sideline 80 yards for a touchdown and a 42-41 Cheltenham lead.
“I didn’t even know I was going to score,” Harris said. “I just saw the seam open up, and I took it and ran.”
Cocalico quarterback Noah Palm – on the Eagles’ first play of the ensuing drive – raced 54 yards for a touchdown and a 49-42 lead after the successful two-point conversion.
The Panthers answered with a 50-yard scoring drive of their own. Sam Sykes had three carries, Barnes had an 11-yard carry and Edwards took it home from 28 yards out, knotting the score 49-49 after Andrew Moreland’s successful PAT with 6:43 remaining.
That set the stage for the Eagles, who marched down the field to the Panthers’ 12 where the defense held. Cocalico’s field goal attempt for the lead failed, and with 3:17 remaining, the Panthers had plenty of time to score.
“We knew they were a tough team, and things did start falling apart, but we trust each other, and that’s what brought it back together,” Cheltenham senior captain Zachary Gaffin said. “We knew that every single one on the field could make the play they needed to make.”
From the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be a defensive battle. An interception by Kamden Wyatt at the Panthers’ three-yard line set the stage for a 97-yard scoring drive that was capped with a 50-yard Edwards TD run. Gaffin scored on the two-point conversion, giving the Panthers an early 8-0 advantage.
Cocalico answered with back-to-back touchdowns to go on top 14-8, but Barnes took it 50 yards to the house to give Cheltenham a 15-14 lead. Palm’s five-yard touchdown run gave the Eagles a five-point lead that was erased when Hunter led Barnes with a beautiful pass and a 69-yard touchdown to put the Panthers on top 22-20. A three-yard Hunter to Harris touchdown pass sent the Panthers into halftime with a 29-20 lead.
On the Panthers opening drive of the second half, the Eagles came up with a defensive stop on fourth-and short, and they took it downfield for a touchdown. The Panthers needed just three plays and a Hunter to Harris pass that Harris turned into a 60-yard touchdown reception to give the lead back to the Panthers. The speedy Harris not only escaped the first diving would-be tackler but put a dazzling move on a Cocalico defender that left him on the ground at the 20.
“When I got the ball in my hands, my first instinct is to score,” Harris said. “Whatever I did down there – that just came with it.”
Cocalico answered with a drive that was capped with a 10-yard Cody Shay touchdown run, trimming the Panthers lead to 36-35 heading into a wild fourth quarter.
On Friday night, Cheltenham (13-1, 6-0 SOL) will take on District 12 champion Archbishop Wood at HersheyPark Stadium at 7 p.m. The PIAA 5A state title will be at stake.
“Ever since I was a kid, my family would come (to Hershey) every year the weekend of Thanksgiving,” Gaffin said. “I’d walk by and see the stadium and think, ‘Man, what would it be like to play here.’ Now I finally know, and it feels amazing.”
“We always said this was possible,” Barnes said. “Back when we had 7-on-7, we used to talk about this and said we could actually have a chance this year.
“Now we’re finally here. We’re excited. We’ll be ready for the task against Archbishop Wood.”
Cheltenham 15-14-7-20 56
Cocalico 14-6-15-14 49
CH – Nate Edwards 6 run (Zachary Gaffin run)
CO – Ronald Zahm 50 run (Alex Mellinger kick)
CO – Ronald Zahm 4 run (Alex Mellinger kick)
CH – Jamir Barnes 50 run (Andrew Moreland kick)
CO – Noah Palm 5 run (Kick failed)
CH – Jamir Barnes 69 pass from Adonis Hunter (Andrew Moreland kick)
CH – TJ Harris 3 pass from Adonis Hunter (Andrew Moreland kick)
CO – Steven Flinton 22 run (Alex Mellinger kick)
CH – TJ Harris 60 pass from Adonis Hunter (Andrew Moreland kick)
CO – Cody Shay 10 run (Cody Shay run)
CO – Cody Shay 2 run (Run failed)
CH – TJ Harris 80 kickoff return (Pass failed)
CO – Noah Palm 59 run (Steven Flinton run)
CH – Nate Edwards 28 run (Andrew Moreland kick)
CH – Nate Edwards 4 run (Andrew Moreland kick)