CATAWISSA — Earlier in the week, North Penn-Mansfield coach Tom Dickinson called Saturday night’s District 4 Class 2A semifinal with Southern Columbia an “impossible battle” for his team.
While his Panthers ultimately suffered the same fate as many others before them who have gone into Southern’s Tiger Stadium for a postseason game, falling to the Tigers 42-0, Dickinson’s team walked out of Tiger Stadium with respect and what he hopes will be a better understanding of what it takes to be successful.
“Our plan was good, our kids hung with them for a while and we lose just three seniors so they learned a lesson,” said Dickinson. “Southern does it the right way, they live in the weight room and those are the types of things I was hoping to learn from so hopefully our kids will. To learn and see what it’s like to play at this level, that’s what I’m hoping they took from this.”
“They played competitive football. Their kids hustled and played aggressively, so it was a much more competitive game for us and better work for us overall,” said Southern coach Jim Roth. “They came in here and didn’t lay down or quit, they played aggressive football, so it was more of a challenge than we had last week.”
Quarterback Colton Litzelman completed a very respectable 16-of-26 passes for 145 yards, including 8-of-16 in the first half against Southern’s first team defense. The Panthers were in position to make plays both offensively and defensively throughout the game and especially early on in the contest, but Southern’s athleticism and ability to escape tackles enabled them to make the plays they needed to make to advance to next week’s district championship game.
“Colt Litzelman is a first-year starter and he battled and our receivers made some plays so I’m not disappointed,” said Dickinson. “That’s an unbelievable football team so what else can you say?”
That escapability started with the first play of the game when Gaige Garcia fielded the opening kickoff at his own goal line, appeared to be surrounded and ready to be tackled after a return only to about the 25-yard line or so, but instead escaped and turned it into a 58-yard return to give Southern its first possession near midfield.
On the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage, Preston Zachman found Julian Fleming in double coverage for a 32-yard reception. The ball was a bit underthrown and the North Penn defensive back closed down well and appeared to be in position to knock the ball down, but the Ohio State recruit’s superior leaping ability enabled him to haul in the catch. Fleming then hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass two plays later on a short crossing route.
The Tigers would score on their first four drives before North Penn was able to manage a first down, and on their first five drives overall. Another play that exemplified North Penn’s frustration with being in the right spots at the right time but being unable to make the play came late in the first quarter when Gavin Garcia appeared to be pinned against the left sideline with nowhere to go and sure to be tackled for a loss. Instead, Garcia reversed field and went right, escaping several tackles and cutting all the way across the width of the field for a 26-yard touchdown run in which he ran at least double that.
“Gavin Garcia — wow — we had guys in position and he just makes you miss,” said Dickinson.
Garcia’s run put Southern up 28-0 and on North Penn’s ensuing drive, the Panthers completed a pair of long passes to record a pair of first downs and flip the field. Colton Litzelman hit Kaelan Matczak for a 34-yard reception down the right sideline and later hit Brandon Thompson for a 13-yard gain on a 4th-and-9 play. But the drive stalled, partially due to an intentional grounding penalty, and North Penn punted to give Southern the ball at its own 8, and two plays later, Gaige Garcia broke loose for a 89-yard touchdown run to make it 35-0 with 10:57 remaining in the second quarter.
Later in the second quarter, Gavin Garcia returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown on a similar play as his offensive touchdown earlier in the game. He raced down the right sideline where he had picked the pass, hit a wall, then reversed field while breaking tackles and eventually took it all the way, entering the end zone on the other side of the field.
With Southern’s second team playing the entire second half, North Penn went on a long drive of 87 yards that spanned most of the fourth quarter with the running clock, including a converted fourth down, and had a first-and-goal. But a lost fumble on the third-and-goal play negated any chance of the Panthers finding the end zone late.