SPRING GROVE — Friday night's crucial York-Adams League Division I showdown between Central York and Spring Grove wasn't even 15 minutes old and Panthers' head coach Josh Oswalt was already looking for a spark.
The Rockets had just gone up by two scores early in the second quarter on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Jake Messersmith to Connor Reed and Central was on the verge of being blown out. So, Oswalt turned to his receiving corps and told each player that one of them had to step up and make a play.
Tim Sturgis was the first player to get that shot and he made sure to deliver.
On the ensuing kickoff, Sturgis fielded the ball at his own 24-yard line and returned it 76 yards for a touchdown, igniting the spark the Panthers desperately needed. It turned the game on its head and led to Central's 35-21 win at Papermakers Stadium, improving the team to 5-2 on the year and 3-1 in Division I. Spring Grove sank to 4-3 overall and 2-2 in league play.
"I said, 'Playmakers have to make plays,' and I looked each one of those receivers in the eyes and said, 'One of you has to make a play,'" Oswalt said. "To get that kick return and take it to the house, it is a different ballgame."
Sturgis' kick return touchdown was the beginning of a 35-7 scoring run for Central, helping it erase the early 14-0 deficit, tie the game by halftime and then eventually take the lead and pull away late in the game.
Noreaga Goff wound up tying the game with an eight-yard touchdown run late in the second half, making it 14-14 going into the halftime break. He then gave the Panthers their first lead of the night on the team's first drive of the second half, this time punching it in from four yards out.
"There's been a lot of times this year where teams have gotten up on us," Goff said. "We kind of played from behind and it's been like that all year. So, I sort of told my guys, 'Strap up. We've been here before.' We've gone into halftimes down 20 points and I just wanted to tell them 'We gotta get together. We'll come out and score.' It was rough, but we overcame that."
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, with the Rockets responding to Central's go-ahead score with one of their own on their next drive. After Anthony Beddia turned a screen pass into a 46-yard gain, Ryan Daugherty scored his second touchdown of the night to level the score at 21-21.
It was the Panthers turn to answer and, on their next drive, sophomore quarterback Cade Pribula showcased his strong arm by connecting with Sakai Barton for a 51-yard touchdown strike to go up 28-21 with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter.
That ultimately turned out to be the game-winning score, as Central's defense stepped up, keeping Spring Grove out of the endzone the rest of the game and then Goff added his third score of the game late in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
"I think that was the game plan from the beginning," Goff said about being the primary offensive option. "But, we just couldn't get it together in the first half."
The Rockets opened the game by possessing the ball for more than six minutes on their first drive, using a steady dose of Daugherty to open up a 7-0 lead. Daugherty eclipsed the 100-yard mark early in the second quarter, but eventually the Panthers eventually slowed him down, forcing Spring Grove into more passing situations, which favored the Central defense.
In total, Daugherty finished with 170 rushing yards on 28 carries and two scores. Messersmith was 6-of-16 for 90 yards, a touchdown and interception and Beddia caught four balls for 59 yards.
Goff finished the night with 169 rushing yards on 27 carries and three scores, while Pribula showed why he's the league's leading passer, completing 10-of-12 passes for 133 yards, including completing his final six throws. Barton caught four passes for 90 yards to lead all players in the game.
Pivotal match-up: There was a lot of talk going into the game because, for both teams, it was essentially a must-win game. With both teams trailing Red Lion by a game in the Division I standings, one more league loss would end any hopes of winning even a share of the Division I crown. As for District 3 playoffs, Central York entered in the eighth and final Class 6-A playoff spot, while the Rockets were trying to work their way closer to the eighth and final spot in the 5-A class.
"All of our coaches told us in the locker room before the game, all the players were telling each other, 'Hey, we need this one. We can't let this one slip away,'" Goff said. "We couldn't afford to lose this game."
With the win, the Panthers set themselves up with basically a championship game next week, when they host the undefeated Lions. A win and they'll be tied for first place, while a loss will end their hopes of becoming Division I champs.
Spring Grove will travel to Northeastern in Week 8.
CENTRAL YORK 35, SPRING GROVE 21
SG — Daugherty 3-yard run (Gordon kick), 5:25
SG — Reed 9-yard catch (Gordon kick), 9:46
CY — Sturgis 76-yard kickoff return (Luckenbaugh kick), 9:31
CY — Goff 8-yard run (Luckenbaugh kick), 1:10
CY — Goff 4-yard run (Luckenbaugh kick), 5:42
SG — Daugherty 1-yard run (Gordon kick), 5:12
CY — Barton 51-yard catch (Luckenbaugh kick), 2:46
CY — Goff 5-yard run (Luckenbaugh kick), 3:09
First Downs: CY, 17. SG, 15
Rushes-Yards: CY, 41-182. SG, 41-166
Passing Yards: CY 133. SG, 90
Comp-Attempts-INTs: CY, 10-12-0. SG, 6-16-1
Penalties-Yards: CY, 4-35. SG, 6-45.
Punts-Average: CY, 3-37.7. SG 5-29.4
Fumbles-Lost: CY, 1-0. SG, 3-0
Individual Passing: CY, Pribula, 10-12-133, 1 TD. SG, Messersmith, 6-16-90, 1 TD.
Individual Rushing: CY, Goff 27-169. Werner 6-29. Barton 1-5. Santiago 1-(-)3. Pribula 6-(-)18. SG, Daugherty 28-170. Beddia 3-13. Brandt 1-2. Glass 2-(-)1. Messersmith 7-(-)18.
Individual Receiving: CY, Barton 4-90. Santiago 4-24. Sturgis 1-24. Goff 1-(-)5. SG, Beddia 4-59. Stein 1-22. Reed 1-9.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com