MANCHESTER — Northeastern head coach Jon Scepanski went first in telling his team how much it meant to him this season.
Senior lineman Chase Kann was next. Then senior quarterback Shannon Valenti. It's the harsh reality that every senior athlete has to face when their season suddenly ends.
And for the Bobcats on Friday night, it came in about the most devastating way imaginable.
Heading into the quarterfinals of the District 3 5-A playoffs, No. 3 Northeastern hosted sixth-seed Cocalico and was less than a minute away from making it to the semifinals. But, a six-yard touchdown run by Eagles quarterback Brady Sawyer brought the visitors to within a point. Then, going for broke, Cocalico went for two and Brandon Brubaker punched it in, giving the Eagles the 25-24 lead with just 45 seconds to play, a score that wound up being the final.
The Bobcats' finished 8-3 on the season.
"We didn't play a bad game," Scepanski said. "We played a good football team. We expected this to be a very, very good football game and that it was. Cocalico played great. They're coached well. ...The kids played great. They fought the whole game. I'm very, very proud of this team."
And fight Northeastern did.
After giving up the game's first 14 points and trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Bobcats came storming back.
Northeastern rattled off 17 unanswered points in the second half to eventually grab a 24-17 advantage with a little more than half of the fourth quarter to play. It started with a Hayden Seifert 29-yard field goal to get the Bobcats back within seven after three quarter. Chris Whack then tied the game with a two-yard run, which was followed by a 31-yard touchdown catch by Fred Mulbah from Valenti to give Northeastern the seven-point lead.
Up to that point, it looked like the Bobcats were going to wrap things up and advance into the semifinals. They seemed to figure out the Eagles' veer-option rushing attack, not allowing a touchdown in more than two quarters.
But, when it mattered most, Cocalico came up with the game's biggest drive, with no play bigger than Colton Goodman's 38-yard run on fourth and one to keep the Eagles' season alive.
Just a few plays later, Cocalico punched it in to win the game.
"It's very hard to practice against that (offense) because you're doing it against a team that does it every day," Scepanski said about slowing down the Eagles' rushing attack. "It's very hard to mimic it in five days. It took us a little bit to get up to speed on things to see how fast they were doing it."
That showed early in the game when Cocalico took the game's first possession and drove 80 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead, with all of them coming on the ground.
From there, however, Northeastern looked to have it shut down, with the Eagles' second scoring drive being keyed by a huge fake punt conversion that went for 28 yards. Eventually, Cocalico would score to take a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
And, for as much as the Bobcats were a team that prided itself on their rushing attack this year, it was their passing game that got them back into the contest and then took the lead.
Mulbah caught his first touchdown of the game shortly after the Eagles went up 14-0, this one an 18-yarder from Valenti to make it 14-7.
On the day, Valenti threw for 178 yards on 8-of-13 passing, by far one of the best performances of the season through the air. Mulbah finished the night with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
"I just stepped up and filled in for (Jonathen Butler)," Mulbah said. "We have passing athletes and we can do both, but we have passing athletes and are good at both."
On the ground, the Bobcats racked up 169 yards, with Anu Johnson finishing as the team-leader with 75 on 16 carries.
Brubaker finished as Cocalico's leading rusher, totaling 131 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns. As a team, the Eagles ran for 264 yards.
This is the second year in a row Northeastern's season has ended in the quarterfinal round of districts at home. The only difference this year is that this was the first round of the newly-formatted playoffs and last year's was the second round.
"I'm very proud of every one of our kids," Scepanski said. "I just let them know that we're always here for them and here to support them, whether they're a senior now or a sophomore now. They've done great things here and I'm very proud of them."
Cocalico improved to 8-3 on the year and will now face Lancaster-Lebanon League rival Manheim Central in next week's semifinals. Manheim Central is the No. 2 seed in the tournament and its only loss of the season came against the Eagles.
COCALICO 25, NORTHEASTERN 24
Co — Brubaker 3-yard run (Puodziunas kick), 8:22
Co — Brubaker 1-yard run (Puodziunas kick), 8:22
Ne — Mulbah 18-yard catch (Seifert kick), 6:33
Co — Puodziunas 36-yard field goal, 2:12
Ne — Seifert 29-yard field goal, 8:44
Ne — Whack 2-yard run (Seifert kick), 7:45
Ne — Mulbah 31-yard catch (Seifert kick), 6:04
Co — Sawyer 6-yard run (Two-point conversion good), :45
First Downs: Co, 11. Ne, 15
Rushes-Yards: Co, 55-264. Ne, 28-169
Passing Yards: Co, 7. Ne, 178
Comp-Attempts-INTs: Co, 1-3-0. Ne, 8-13-0
Penalties-Yards: Co, 3-30. Ne, 9-82
Punts-Average: Co, 3-24.3. Ne, 0-0
Fumbles-Lost: Co, 2-0. Ne, 3-2
Individual Passing: Co, Sawyer 1-3-7. Ne, Valenti 8-13-178, 2 TDs.
Individual Rushing: Co, Brubaker 29-131. Goodman 12-104. Sawyer 11-15. Landers 2-9. Frey 1-4. Ne, Johnson 16-75. Valenti 8-60. Willis 2-29. Whack 2-5.
Individual Receiving: Co, Brubaker 1-7. Ne, Mulbah 5-103. Franklin 1-44. Willis 2-31.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com