HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: District 3 Class 5A semifinal preview
The District 3 Class 5A playoffs continue Friday night with a pair of semifinal matchups.
Top-seeded Cocalico hosts Warwick in one semifinal matchup, while Cedar Cliff faces Exeter Township in the other.
Friday’s winners advance to the championship game, which will be held Nov. 22 at the home of the higher seed.
Here’s a look at Friday’s matchups:
Warwick (10-2) at Cocalico (9-2)
Their high schools might be located less than 15 miles apart, but Friday night’s District 3 semifinal clash between Warwick and Cocalico marks the first time the northern Lancaster County neighbors have met on the field since 1978, according Ephrata Review sports editor Todd Ruth.
The top-seeded Eagles won a rematch with Governor Mifflin in the semifinals, riding another stellar two-way performance from senior quarterback/defensive back Noah Palm to a 42-14 victory. Palm, University of New Hampshire recruit, rushed for a team-high 91 yards and four touchdowns while running Cocalico’s Veer offense, and made a game-changing defensive play by sacking Mifflin QB Kolbie Reeser, forcing a fumble, and falling on the loose ball.
That turnover led to a run of 22 straight points for the Eagles, who blew the game open and cruised to their fifth straight victory.
Warwick also defeated a team it had beaten earlier this season, but the Warriors had a much more difficult time subduing perennial District 3 powerhouse Manheim Central the second time around. Tanner Haines booted a 17-yard field goal as time expired to lift Warwick to a 31-28 triumph over the Barons. It was just the third playoff victory in program history for the Warriors.
Warwick beat Central 37-7 in Week 3 of the regular season, but needed a late rally to win the rematch. Adam Martin blocked a Baron punt with 1:55 to play to set up the Warriors’ game-winning drive.
Though both teams use different approaches when it comes to moving the ball, their offenses are evenly matched from a statistical standpoint. The Eagles rank fifth in the Lancaster-Lebanon League in total offense, averaging 389 yards per game. The Warriors (393 yards per game) are third. Cocalico has the league’s second-best scoring offense (40.6 points per game), while Warwick’s (37.8 points per game) is fourth. But while the Warriors have a more-balanced approach, averaging 198 yards per game on the ground and 273 yards per game through the air, Cocalico relies much more heavily on its rushing attack, which averages 332 yards per game. The Eagles normally throw for just 96 yards per game.
Those numbers are reflected in the players to watch for both teams.
Cocalico’s offense revolves around Palm, who has a team-high 1,186 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns on 142 attempts to go along with his 917 yards and eight scores on 43-of-66 passing. Ronald Zahm (53-625, four TDs) and Steven Flinton (65-560, six TDs) are the other workhorses in the backfield. Zahm (24-580, seven TDs) is also the team’s leading receiver.
Warwick QB Joey McCracken has thrown for 2,683 yards and 26 touchdowns this season, completing 162 of his 261 pass attempts. McCracken is also second on the team in rushing, with 363 yards and a touchdown on 68 carries. Colton Miller (240-1,259, 29 TDs) is Warwick’s top rusher, while Caleb Schmitz (53-923, 13 TDs) and Conor Adams (56-911, eight TDs) are both closing in on 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Warwick’s defense has given up an average of 261 yards and 13.1 points per game, while Cocalico gives up 345 yards and 23 points per game.
Exeter Township (9-3) at Cedar Cliff (9-2)
The host Colts punched their tickets to the semifinals with a 41-13 rout of New Oxford, riding a spectacular effort from running back Jaheim Morris, who raced for 303 yards and three touchdowns while racking up 40 carries. Morris also hauled in a 66-yard TD pass from quarterback Gannon McMeans as Cedar Cliff scored on its first three possessions to quickly take control.
The Colts racked up 512 yards of total offense, while the defense held New Oxford to 146 yards.
Morris, a 5-9, 190-pound senior, is Cedar Cliff’s all-time leading rusher, and his 2,165 yards and 25 touchdowns this season lead the Mid-Penn Conference. McMeans has completed 91 of 181 pass attempts, for 1,222 yards and 12 scores.
Cedar Cliff has won eight straight games since falling 43-13 to Cocalico and 41-7 to Harrisburg in back-to-back weeks in September. The Colts won the Mid-Penn Keystone Division championship in the regular season. They are seeking their fourth district championship. Cedar Cliff’s last appearance in a title game was in 1996, when the Colts defeated Wilson 38-13 in the Class 4A final.
Exeter fought its way to the semifinals with a 16-14 upset of Shippensburg, the No. 3 seed. It was the first loss of the season for the Greyhounds.
The 11th-seeded Eagles got a 161-yard rushing performance from running back Wender Polanco. Sean Henry added three field goals for Exeter, whose lone touchdown came on a one-yard plunge by Tyler Yocum.
Exeter’s pass-heavy offense was held to just 70 yards through the air, but the Eagles managed 200 rushing yards while holding Shippensburg to just 128 yards of offense. The Greyhounds also committed four turnovers.
Polanco and Jeremiah Nixon split the bulk of the rushing duties for Exeter, combining for 1,198 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. But Nixon was limited by an injury against Shipp, and managed just five yards on one carry.
Quarterback Gavin McClusker has completed 106 of 197 passes, for 1,896 yards and 24 touchdowns. Those totals are all tops in Berks County.
Alex Javier (40-844, 17 TDs) is McClusker’s top target.
Exeter has won seven of its last eight games. The Eagles are 4-10 in their district playoff history and are making just their second appearance in the semifinals.