In all the excitement of the explosiveness of Atlee football’s offense, it has been their defense, much-maligned a year ago, that has been the most consistent unit this season.
Allowing just 15 points per game in the regular season, the Raiders allowed just six to Meadowbrook in their playoff opener. Round two brought to Atlee the lone team with a victory over them in 2013: Douglas Freeman.
But the Rebels came in limping, with two injuries to key running backs Jack Gerstenmaier and Evan Tyler. It wouldn’t stop Freeman from running the ball well in the first half, but the Atlee defense ensured they wouldn’t the rest of the way, as the Raiders avenged their defeat, moving on in the Class 5A South Central playoffs with a 24-10 victory Friday night.
Douglas Freeman had four total yards in the second half. You read that right. Four yards. Atlee’s defense held Rebels starting running back Christian Cozens to 9 yards, after allowing him to run for 68 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
This put pressure on Rebels quarterback Kyle Farkas to pass in order to come from behind, but five of Atlee’s season-high eight sacks on Farkas came in the second half. The lefty senior only completed five of 13 passing attempts in the second stanza, for just 24 yards.
“Defense has been our nucleus all year long, they’ve come up for us big,” Atlee head coach Roscoe Johnson said. “They were talked about all last season, how they might have been the worst defense in the state and so forth, but these guys really understood what [Defensive Coordinator Richard) McFee said about defense. I’m so proud of them.”
Again, special teams, specifically punt returner Tye Burriss, would stand out, and help give the Raiders an early advantage. Freeman punter Aaron Coleman’s first attempt was unorthodox, walking several steps with the ball before punting it, giving his team a chance to surround Burriss and the landing ball.
They did, but before any of the Rebels decided to down it, Burriss took over with a head of steam at his own 45, caught the ball after one bounce at the Freeman 46, and took off to the delight of the home crowd, and the dismay of shocked opponents. Coleman saved the touchdown, knocking Burriss out of bounds at the 4-yard line.
Asked about deciding to make such a dangerous move, Burriss noted acting instinctively.
“I just did it,” he said.
Two plays later, quarterback Reid McCoy walked into the end zone from 1 yard out for a 7-0 lead, 8:21 left in the first quarter.
The Freeman offense slowly got moving, Cozens finding a groove behind his offensive line, advancing to the Atlee 9 early in the second quarter. He rushed all three times from there, scoring from 1 yard out to tie the game at seven.
On the very next possession, Atlee seized the lead for good, McCoy using the fake to find room up the gut again, this time from 22 yards, for a 14-7 Raider lead. But just before halftime, Rebels kicker Sam Reiner nailed a 47-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10. Douglas Freeman would start the second half on offense. The adjustments Atlee made defensively at halftime would render the advantage irrelevant.
While Atlee spent the second half shutting down Farkas and company, the offense was sputtering. Numerous opportunities passed them by. Finally, the Raiders got their first two-possession lead. McCoy had a nifty 20-yard run, eluding four Rebel tacklers before going down at the Freeman 35. Lamont Stubbs, who rushed for 102 yards, found a hole up the middle for 11. McCoy ran for 22 more to the Rebel 2. Stubbs finished the job, scoring with 5:43 left.
Freeman was left no choice but to go for it when their next drive stalled deep in their own territory on fourth down and 10 at their own 20 with 4:27 left. Farkas narrowly avoided Alec Eberle on the rush and flung the ball downfield, but James Blevins had the ball go in and out of his hands at the 40, and Atlee took over.
The Raiders took the short field and set up Ryan Molin to kick a 32-yard field goal with 3:29 left for the final margin.
Johnson was proud of how his team handled this game’s atmosphere, with the added dimension, beyond being in the playoffs, of the revenge factor. Freeman defeated Atlee in Richmond 24-14 Sept. 20.
“I told them the biggest thing is don’t be afraid. I’m OK if you make mistakes, just don’t make a mistake being scared,” Johnson said.
Atlee’s next opponent would strike fear in most teams – 12-0 defending state champion L.C. Bird. The Skyhawks have won 26 straight games and haven’t lost in two years. But, no matter the challenge, Johnson and the Raiders relish the opportunity that awaits them in Friday’s 5A South Central Zone Championship game.
“They deserve all the accolades that they receive,” Johnson noted. “We understand the tradition of various Central Region teams, but we’re not afraid of anyone. Anything can happen at this time of year.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. in Chester. The winner earns a berth in the Class 5A State Semifinals Saturday, Dec. 7, at Old Dominion University.
(NOTE: The Atlee at L.C. Bird game can be heard Friday beginning at 6:30 p.m. on WHAN, 102.9 FM and 1430 AM, and online at HanoverCountySports.net).