Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bulldogs, Knights meet again in AA final

            Northern Lehigh and Pen Argyl’s match-up this Saturday could be called a couple of things.
            It could be termed ‘The Rematch.’  ‘The Sequel.’  ‘Bulldogs-Knights Part Two.’
            It can also be described as something else: the 2011 District 11 AA Championship Game.
            The Colonial League’s top two teams, Pen Argyl (11-0) and Northern Lehigh (10-1), will face off for a second time this year when the two meet in the district final this Saturday at 1 p.m.  The Bulldogs’ only loss on the year came at the hands of the Knights back on Oct. 8 when they fell 14-8 in a tight one.  As fate would have it, the ‘Dawgs have been granted a shot at redemption.
            “Playing for a district championship is always our goal from the beginning,” said Northern Lehigh head coach Joe Tout.  “We are very fortunate to be playing in our third straight.  And it’s tough in AA, especially with the run North Schuylkill has made over the last few years.
            “As far as playing Pen Argyl again, and just being a competitor as a player and a coach, it’s what you want.  When you have one close loss all year and you get a second chance – that’s all you can ask for.”
            As was the case in the first meeting, Saturday’s game figures to be a defensive battle.  The two defenses are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in all of District 11 in terms of points-per-game allowed.  Pen Argyl leads the way at a measly 5.6.  Only three teams have scored more than eight points on the Knights all year.  None have scored more than 15.  Last week Pen Argyl’s defense held Pine Grove’s Cameron Conrad, a 1,500-yard rusher, to just 81 yards in a 49-13 win.
            Meanwhile, Northern Lehigh comes in having allowed an average of 7.1 points-per-game and is the only team to hold the Knights to less than 27 points.  They also managed to ‘limit’ Pen Argyl running back Dylan Evans to 108 yards and a touchdown.  Last week the Bulldogs became the first team in three years to shut out North Schuylkill (28-0) and are hoping for a similar effort this week.
            The last time these two teams met, all 22 points were scored within the first four drives of the game.  Northern Lehigh was picked off on its first possession before the teams alternated scores for the next three series.  The Bulldogs jumped ahead 8-7 in the second quarter and are the only team this season to lead Pen Argyl.
            “It is going to be very tough for both offenses,” said Pen Argyl head coach Paul Reduzzi, whose defense is an outstanding plus-27 in turnovers on the year.  “We are similar in the sense that both teams play responsible defense.  We both know our assignments and execute them well.  We are both fast and fly to the ball.  I expect a game very similar to our first meeting where both defenses play extremely well.”
            While Evans (school-record 1,649 yards and 24 TDs) has been Pen Argyl’s workhorse for the majority of the season, lately the Knights have lined up him, quarterback Conor Gum and fellow back Mike Racciato in the shotgun formation at the same time.  Racciato’s carries have gone up over the last three weeks as Pen Argyl has looked to spread the ball around a little bit more.
            “I think (Pen Argyl) is a little different now,” said Tout.  “They have been splitting their backs in the shotgun and have their three best athletes in the backfield.  It’s a smart thing to do.  Now a defense can’t focus on one guy.  We have to account for all three of them at once.  It makes it that much more difficult.”
            Northern Lehigh has a 1,000-yard rusher of its own in Trevor Yashur.  Yashur was able to find some running lanes last meeting, as he totaled 78 yards and a touchdown on the ground.  Quarterback Dylan Hofmann, who has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns himself, only had 69 yards passing.  Then again, those are the numbers one would expect when playing against the district’s top defense.
            The Bulldogs were able to move the ball against the Knights back in early October.  However, in order for the outcome to be different this time around, Tout says his team must finish off drives.
            “We have to be able to score when the opportunity is there,” Tout said.  “We had a drive in the second half where we didn’t convert a third-and-short and ended up giving the ball up on downs.  We moved the ball.  We just didn’t succeed inside the 30-yard-line.  Now I’m not expecting to us to score on every drive, but we are going to need two or three touchdowns in order to win.”
            Saturday will be the first time Northern Lehigh and Pen Argyl have met in the district playoffs since 2006.  The Knights won that first-round matchup 14-13.  Five years later, points will be at a premium once again.
            “I didn’t really understand the Pen Argyl-Northern Lehigh rivalry,” admitted Reduzzi.  “I played for Pen Argyl and never competed against Northern Lehigh.  When I was hired, the whole school was talking about the rivalry.  But I didn’t get it.
            “Over the last five years, I have come to understand what this match-up is all about.  It’s a good rivalry with a lot of tradition and now we get to play each other for a district championship.  I’m sure both teams wouldn’t have it any other way.”