MIDDLETOWN>> Penncrest running back Caleb Mahalik could have taken home the game ball following his team’s 40-7 triumph over visiting Harriton. He rushed for 75 tough yards on 21 carries and sealed the victory with a one-yard dive early the fourth quarter.
Instead, Mahalik handed the ball over to his coach, Andrew Pidgeon, and with good reason. It was the Lions’ first win of the year and Pidgeon’s first as a head coach.
“It’s awesome,” said Pidgeon, who served as the offensive coordinator at Cardinal O’Hara in 2016. “The best part about it is the way we did it in all three aspects, a great special teams performance, a great defensive performance and our offense came on. Everyone contributed. It was nice to see.”
The occasion wasn’t lost on the players. After two defeats on the road to start the year, Penncrest returned to a packed house at home. The adrenaline carried over to the first series when, on the second snap of the game, Rams quarterback Jack Torbeck coughed up the ball. Giovanni Antonelli scooped it up and raced untouched for a 42-yard score.
“I got the ball and saw nothing but green in front of me,” Antonelli said. “The best feeling.”
With the crowd still buzzing, the Lions d produced another big play. This time Jake Quinn rocked Torbeck to force a fumble. Penncrest recovered at the Harriton two. A Chris Mills sneak and a Kevin Mills kick made it 14-0. Just two minutes had elapsed between scores.
“We had confidence,” said Mahalik of the early lead, “but I was scared it was too much.”
For a while it looked like that was the case. On their next drive, the Lions failed to get a punt away, leaving the Rams with prime field position. Torbeck found Stan Patton on a third-down throw for a 22-yard touchdown to make it 14-7.
Penncrest couldn’t find its offensive rhythm. The Lions recovered four Harriton fumbles in the first half — all in opponent’s territory — and managed just two touchdowns. The first was Mills’ two-yard rush, the second was a spectacular, perhaps game-saving play from Antonelli. On fourth-and-goal from the seven, he fought off a defensive back to snare a jump ball from Chris Chelo, who rotated with Mills under center.
“I was trying to break the contact, put my hand out there and catch the ball,” said Antonelli. “I did it, and it worked out in my favor.”
Even with that play, the offensive numbers at the break weren’t pretty: 49 total yards.
“We always tell them, (we’re) never too high, we’re never too low,” said Pidgeon. “When you get too high, sometimes your execution goes down. You have to stay even keeled, but they got back onto it.”
That they did. Behind Mahalik’s running, Penncrest (1-2, 1-1 Central) dominated possession after the break. The Lions strung together three scoring drives without a punt. Only a bad-snap fumble diminished the performance.
Chelo tossed a second touchdown in the third quarter, this one to Vinny Brown, who fully earned it. He had set up the field position with a 34-yard punt return.
Next, it was Mahalik’s turn to capitalize on his own hard work. On fourth-and-three from the 28, he dragged a few Rams (1-2, 0-2) with him on his way to a first down. Four plays later he was in the end zone.
“We kept fighting,” said Mahalik. “Our line kept pushing. We kept punching it and punching it.”
Even third-string Nick Benecke got in on the act, taking a keeper in from 12 yards out to complete the scoring in the fourth quarter.
When Pidgeon looks back at the boxscore, he’ll see a lot to like: Five touchdown scorers, five turnovers and 15 first downs. But nothing will look better than that one in the win column.