READING >> Exeter football has come a long way the last three seasons. And going deep on fourth-and-11 from its own 33-yard-line, deep in the second quarter of a District 3 Class 5A playoff game on Nov. 11, showed the kind of gumption that gave the Eagles’ program its wings.
It was an admirable gamble on a night Exeter coach Matt Bauer took several in order to level the playing field against a more talented Harrisburg squad, which boasts several explosive playmakers including Penn State commits Micah Parsons and Damion Barber. The Eagles trailed only 6-3 and were coming off a nearly seven-minute scoring drive that notched their field goal, followed by a good defensive series that forced a Harrisburg three-and-out. So Exeter’s fourth-and-long attempt was a shot at seizing some momentum before their enthusiastic home crowd.
They got it … then they didn’t. Exeter junior quarterback Brandon Unterkoefler fired the ball to outstanding senior end Gabe Schappell, who made a leaping catch for a 16-yard gain and apparent first down. The crowd roared.
Then it sighed. The Eagles were called for illegal man downfield and had to punt. From there, momentum swung like a sledgehammer in Harrisburg’s favor. The Cougars scored on their next two possessions to close the second half on a roll and went on to a 36-10 victory.
“The kids fought to the end,” Bauer said after his team finished the season 8-3. “We weren’t going to take a back seat to these guys. Our guys worked too hard all year-round to ever do that.”
Schappell was an excellent example of that work ethic that drove the program. Headed for the United States Military Academy at West Point, Schappell leaves the Eagles as the school’s all-time leading receiver, including a record 19 touchdown catches.
“He’s a playmaker and we’ll really miss him. We’ll miss all our seniors,” Bauer said.
And Schappell will miss his coaches, whom he credited for engineering a major turnaround in the program, reflected in three straight playoff appearances.
“Coach Bauer and our staff really work hard, watching film, making game plans, coaching us so well,” Schappell said. “I love our coaching staff with all my heart. We put in the work, and they wanted to change the way our program was. They changed the program around with the hard work.”
Exeter opened the game with an onside kick and recovered it. The Eagles got to the red zone but missed a 36-yard field goal try. Harrisburg’s fast defense often made yards difficult, and the Eagles’ defense did a bang-up job holding the Cougars’ weapons in check for as long as they could.
Parsons scored his first of three TDs on a fourth-and-one, 16-yard run in the final minute of the first quarter. Exeter answered with the long field goal drive that started with a circus catch by Schappell for 25 yards. The series included a fourth-and-one conversion at the Harrisburg 41 by tireless running back Nick Sarangoulis and a 19-yard reception by Sarangoulis.
But 8-3 Harrisburg’s big guns started going off late in the half. Lefty quarterback Yahmir Wilkerson made a 30-yard scramble, an 18-yard completion, and versatile Joel Davis scored from the 9 to make it 13-3. After an interception by Davis, which he returned 52 yards, the fleet Parsons scored on a swing pass for a 20-3 halftime lead.
Exeter came out strong offensively to start the second half, driving 80 yards to a TD, and they held the Cougars to a field goal after Schappell tackled Davis for a 13-yard loss. Down 23-10 with 6:07 left in the third, the game was still manageable for the Eagles.
But Davis and Parsons were not. A 63-yard punt return by Davis set up Parsons’ short scoring run with 48 seconds left in the third, effectively clinching the outcome.
“We made too many mistakes, but they were aggressive mistakes,” Bauer said. “The kids were going after it with everything they had.”