STROHECKER: After much hype, Central York-Red Lion showdown delivers in big way
- Central York knocked off Red Lion, 24-21, to move into sole possession of first place in Division I.
- The Panthers snapped the Lions' 21-game, regular-season unbeaten streak.
- Central York now holds a one-game lead over York High, Dallastown and Red Lion in the Division I standings.
It was a football showdown that had at least two weeks of hype and anticipation.
After Red Lion took care of York High at home in Week 4 and Central York started putting wins together against the bottom half of York-Adams Division I, the two were on a collision course.
The collision happened Friday night, Oct. 20.
The Lions entered at 7-0 overall and 4-0 in D-I play. The Panthers were winners of four consecutive games, improving to 5-2 overall, with all of those wins coming against D-I foes.
In a sense, it was a de facto D-I championship game in every aspect. You had the top two teams in the division, both sporting perfect division records. There were weeks of hype surrounding the game, with almost everyone around the league — fans, media, players and coaches — knowing full well it was the top game in York County for Week 8. Then there was last year's meeting to add to it, a 10-point Red Lion victory, which was its toughest game en route to a perfect 2016 regular season and D-I title.
With so much anticipation, it almost seemed set up to be a letdown, even if it was a decent game.
Instead, anyone in attendance at Horn Field Friday night was treated to a game that lived up to the hype, and then exceeded it. It had it all — high quality of play on the field, a fourth-quarter comeback and a last-second victory.
"I love walking in from the locker room before the game and looking up — I love this stadium. It's real intimate," Panthers' quarterback Cade Pribula said. "It's great playing here, and when you win a game here, there's not a feeling like it."
The final score will show that Central York paid back the Lions for last season's road win with one of its own, a 24-21 victory. It pushed the Panthers into sole possession of first place in D-I at 5-0, while Red Lion is now in a three-way tie for second with York High and Dallastown at 4-1.
However, what the scoreline doesn't show is that, mixed in, there was a dominant Lions' defensive performance for 3 1/2 quarters, a two-score lead for Red Lion midway through the fourth quarter and then a dramatic comeback by Central York.
"It's fun," Lions' head coach Jesse Shay said about playing a game such as the one on Friday night. "This is why Central works hard. This is why we work hard. This is what you want. You want to be tested against teams like this."
While Red Lion was on the wrong side of the final score, it proved that the top half of D-I is as closely packed together as it's been in recent years. In order for the Lions to lose, and see their 21-game, regular-season unbeaten streak end, it took a miraculous Panthers comeback.
There was a touchdown by Pribula with less than five minutes to play that pulled Central York to within 21-14. Then, after forcing Red Lion to punt, a safety on a bad snap got the Panthers within five and the ball back with just more than two minutes to go.
A 50-yard catch by Tim Sturgis on third down got Central's winning drive moving, which was eventually capped by Hunter Werner's 3-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds to play.
It was as dramatic as can be imagined.
For the Lions, playing in big games has become the norm over the last several years under Shay. Becoming the class of D-I has led to games, week in and week out, where Red Lion receives the very best out of its opponents.
When Panthers' head coach Josh Oswalt arrived to take over the team before the 2016 season, it was a goal of his to make Central relevant again, not just in D-I, but in District 3 6-A.
He turned around a Carlisle program in his first stop as a head coach and, after the Panthers went 3-7 in 2015, Oswalt has come in and gone 13-6 in his first two years at the helm, including a district appearance last season.
He's made the program relevant again and has Central York playing in meaningful games as a premier team.
"The energy in this stadium tonight was second to none," Oswalt said following Friday's win. "I played at Cumberland Valley, I coached at Carlisle. I've played and coached in some big games, but this was great tonight. ... This is why you do it. You don't do it just to dominate every week. We knew this was a big game, the kids took that stuff seriously all week, they showed up Monday ready to work and it paid off."
All three — Pribula, Shay and Oswalt — were right. Friday night's game is what makes high school football fun.
In a season that's seen a lot of one-sided games and few close, competitive match-ups, Friday night's showdown made up for all of it.
Rarely will a game with so much hype deliver so much quality.
Red Lion and Central York did — and then some.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org