READING — When Todd Stuter sent his first team out on the field with 7:30 left to play in a running clock, it was clear what the intentions were.
Let’s give the seniors, and Onasis Neely, one last run before the season ends.
The Mid-Penn Conference’s leading rusher carried the ball seven times against Berks Catholic’s second string defense on that final drive, picking up 78 of his 121 yards on the night and scoring from 6 yards out. It was a meaningless score for the game — a 48-7 thumping at BC in the District 3 Class 4A semifinals Friday night — but it gave the Panthers, who have 18 seniors, one last moment together.
“That’s just pride,” Stuter said. “Let’s go out, get 100 yards, finish out a great career and go home.”
“It’s pride,” said Neely, who then pivoted to praise his blockers for a job well done this season. “I was proud of my linemen and what they did for me.”
The Panthers knew immediately after last week’s win at Susquehannock that trying to beat No. 1 Berks Catholic (12-0) was a nigh impossible undertaking. The Saints first team defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown all year, and the No. 5 Panthers (9-3) got a taste of that last year in the playoffs, another decisive loss.
Led by Syracuse-bound linebacker Cooper Lutz and another two-way talent in Brandon George, just to name two of many talented players, the merciless Saints defense imposed its will nearly at the outset.
BC forced a punt on East Penn’s first drive, and Tre Dabney promptly took it 65 yards to the house. The Saints never trailed after that, rolling up 35 first-half points.
“That team’s no hype,” Neely said.
The Saints recorded three return touchdowns. George picked off senior Payton Morris on the Panthers’ next offensive series, taking it 43 yards to push the lead to 13-0. Then Dabney added his own pick-six late in the half. His 35-yarder made it 35-0 at the break.
And when not taking it to pay dirt in some fashion, they terrorized QB Morris, who was sacked three times and fumbled twice. Neely was held to 31 yards on 12 carries in the first 24 minutes, fumbling the first snap of the game.
“He has over 2,000 yards rushing and in order to do that you have be a good athlete and you have to work really hard,” said BC coach Rick Keeley, who had Lincoln Lutz, Cooper’s younger brother, run as Neely during practice this week. “That presents a great challenge to our defense, to compete against a back of that caliber. And they really rose to the occasion.”
The Panthers punted six times Friday, were picked off twice and had just six first downs in the first three quarters.
“We knew we’d have to have an incredible game to beat this team,” Stuter said. “But we thought, ‘Hey, let’s try to play 14-0 at halftime and then see what happens.’”
“Way up there,” said senior linebacker Trent Fries when asked how BC ranked against the Panthers’ other foes this year. “They’re definitely probably the No. 1 team.”
And on offense Lutz and George shredded East Penn with great blocking and play design. By the time either hit the second level, it was practically over. Lutz used his speed and a wicked stiff arm to turn six carries into 144 yards and three touchdowns (including back-to-back TDs in the start of the second half). And George bludgeoned the Panthers for 82 yards and a score on nine bruising carries.
The Saints racked up 324 yards on just 31 carries (the Panthers had 38 for 147, by comparison) and never punted. Their only turnovers were on downs, including a missed field goal on the game’s first drive.
“We had no answer,” Neely said. “Defense balled out as best we could.”
“I thought we started off very well,” said Fries, who was in on a couple tackles. “We just tried to keep fighting on as much as we could.”
Fellow ‘backer Garrison Shields-Seelig started strong with several first-half tackles and an interception off Terrance Derr in the third quarter, one of the Panthers’ few bright spots on the chilly night.
But it mattered little by that point.
That final East Pennsboro drive was essentially a final bow for a talented senior class, one that won a midget Super Bowl together in grade school. East Penn will struggle to replace Fries, Morris, Noah Alejandro, Nic Nugent, Noah Wilk, Shields-Seelig, Robert Schnarrs and several others.
“Before it ended it’s kinda just playing around in my head,” said Stuter, who called the Class of 2018 one of his favorites over more than 20 years of coaching. “This was a great group, they won a Super Bowl when they were midgets, they’ve always had success.”
It includes standout Neely, who finished the year with 2,463 yards and 33 touchdowns. He is still uncommitted with several FCS offers on the table, optimistic he can get some more after a storied season.
“That’s tough having a back doing that,” the 6-foot, 195-pound back said. “My line did really good this year.”
Berks Catholic gets Class 4A second seed Bishop McDevitt, no stranger to district title games in Hershey. The Crusaders thumped Lampeter-Strasburg 47-17 in Friday’s other semi.