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Cheltenham’s 1st-half gambles pay off in District 1-5A semifinal win over Kennett

Cheltenham’s Adonis Hunter (5) runs in for his third touchdown of the game against Kennett during their District 1-5A semifinal on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (James Beaver/For MediaNews Group)

CHELTENHAM >> Ryan Nase isn’t averse to taking a chance.

“I’m from Northeast Philly, that’s what we do,” the Cheltenham football coach said.

Big risks in the first half earned the Panthers big rewards in Friday night’s District 1-5A semifinal against Kennett.

Nate Edwards took a fake punt 57 yards for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive while in the half’s final seconds Sam Sykes powered into the end zone on 4th-and-Goal to send the Panthers into the break leading 27-7.

“We’re going to take shots, we’re going to be aggressive,” Nase said. “We talked in the locker room before the game about overcoming opposition and we don’t always do things the way you’re supposed to do it but we get it done. And the fake punt is a perfect example.”

Cheltenham’s Nate Edwards (6) runs for another Panther first down after his catch against Kennett during their District 1-5A semifinal on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (James Beaver/For MediaNews Group)

The 20-point cushion was enough to hold off the visiting fourth-seeded Blue Demons in the second half as top-seeded Cheltenham advanced to the district final with a 42-20 victory.

“It’s a great feeling. We’ve been waiting for this moment and it finally came,” Sykes said. “I want to thank all my teammates, my coaches – they make it easy for us. We just go out here and do it. We put the work in and I’m glad we just here.”

Quarterback Adonis Hunter ran for three touchdowns while Edwards added to his fake-punt score with a 44-yard TD on an interception return late in the fourth as the Panthers (12-1) won their 10th straight to move on and host Academy Park in the district title game. The No. 3 Knights edged No.7 West Chester Rustin in Friday’s other semifinal.

“We talked the whole time since the first day I arrived about team, tempo, title,” Nase said. “And the league championship was unbelievable. Now we got a chance to win a district championship which is something that’s never been done here before. So it’s something that we’re really, really looking forward to.”

Kennett’s rushing attack paced by Garrett Cox moved the ball on Cheltenham but the Blue Demons hurt themselves with five turnovers – four interceptions and a fumble – and after halftime could only cut the deficit down to 14.

“We stumbled out of the gate,” Kennett coach Lance Frazier said. “We talked about playoff football and needing to be efficient and play mistake-free football and we did the total opposite in the first half. But they forced some of that. Those guys, they were very opportunistic and they made the plays when they needed to make them.”

Cox finished with a game-high 167 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries while QB Sam Forte threw a pair of TDs – both to Luke Forte – and ran 15 times for 78 yards. Kennett finishes the season 11-2 with its run to the district semifinals earning the Blue Demons their first two playoffs wins in program history.

“I told the guys you learn from your fails and your successes and we’ve had a great deal of success this year,” Frazier said. “This is a game where we failed, but those guys in that room are going to learn so much from this situation and this experience and so are we as coaches.

“We took that leap this past year and we plan to do the same next year.”

Kennett’s Garrett Cox (29) was able to run the ball effectively against the Cheltenham defense Friday night in the district 1 5A semi final game. (James Beaver/For MediaNews Group)

Hunter was 6-of-15 passing for 126 yards and ran eight times for 49 yards before leaving the game with an injury at 7:08 in the fourth. Jamir Barnes added 65 yards on 17 carries for Cheltenham.

The Panthers’ opening series look to be a three-and-out but on 4th-and-9 they got tricky with a fake punt – upback Zach Gaffin taking the snap and handing off to Edwards, who broke down the right side for a 57-yard touchdown and a 6-0 lead 10:54 in the first quarter.

“We were talking about this from the beginning of the week,” Sykes said. “We knew if we had the chance on our first drive we was going for it. We got to get after it, cause they wasn’t a bad team so we knew we had to take the lead early.”

Cheltenham went up 13-0 on its next possession as Hunter capped a nine-play, 69-yard drive with a  1-yard TD on a QB sneak at 5:35 in the first quarter.

Kennett forced a fumble to take over at the Panther 39 at 11:02 in the second quarter but on the next play Sykes intercepted Sam Forte and personal foul on the Blue Demons gave put Cheltenham at the Kennett 28. The Panthers converted the turnover into points when Hunter scored on another 1-yard QB sneak to make it 20-0 at 10:19.

“Anytime we get a team in an opportunity to have to throw the ball and we know they’re throwing the ball, we got a bunch of ball hawks in the backfield and a bunch of d-linemen that can get after the quarterback,” Nase said.

The Blue Demons pulled to within 20-7 on the next series – Sam Forte ending a 13-play, 67-yard drive with an 8-yard TD pass to Luke Forte with 2:23 left in the half.

Cheltenham’s Amani Ezell (17) and Sidiqq Williams (7) celebrate after the Panthers forced a turnover against Kennett during their District 1-5A semifinal on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (James Beaver/For MediaNews Group)

But Hunter began the next drive by connecting with Edwards on back-to-back completions of 33 and 27 yards to put the Panthers at the Kennett 17. Facing a 4th-and-Goal from the two with just 2.3 seconds left, Cheltenham went for the touchdown and got it when Sykes powered through the line to reach the end zone with the clock all zeroes.

“That was a crazy moment,” Sykes said. “I knew we had a little bit of time left, my coaches telling me to dive, just go for it. And I was glad that I was able to make the play for them. It was great feeling.”

Kennett began the second half  slicing the margin to 27-13 when Cox’s 18-yard touchdown run at 7:51 in the third finished a nine-play, 74-yard drive.

Cheltenham’s Kamden Wyatt (13) runs back a big kickoff return in the second half against Kennett during their District 1-5A semifinal on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (James Beaver/For MediaNews Group)

The Blue Demons forced a Cheltenham incompletion on fourth down from the Kennett 34 but three  plays later Amani Ezell’s interception gave the Panthers back the ball. Hunter proceeded to give Cheltenham a 34-13 lead as he bowled over a Kennett defender to finish a 17-yard touchdown run at 1:55 in the third.

“I’m going to take some credit for that because he tried to make a cut in practice the other week and I told him that if I ever saw him try and cut back that I wasn’t going to let him carry the ball anymore,” Nase said. “So I think he realized that he’s been doing all those lifts for the past two-and-a-half years for that moment. And he got a good one for his highlight film there.”

Sam Forte dropped a five-yard touchdown pass to Luke Forte with 5:23 left in the fourth to make it 34-20 but the Blue Demons next two drives ended with interceptions – the second Edwards returned for a 44-yard pick six with 1:39 remaining to put the finishing touches on the Panther victory.

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