Lower Merion >> A trio of touchdowns on kick returns spiced up Conestoga’s 40-14 win against Lower Merion at Arnold Field Saturday.
The first one was on the opening kickoff, as Conestoga senior Patrick Reilly ran it back 94 yards for a touchdown.
The second came midway through the third quarter, as Reilly broke free on a 90-yard kickoff return to give Conestoga a 31-14 lead.
The final one came with 3:32 left to play in the final quarter, as Pioneer senior standout wide receiver Peter Detwiler ran back a free kick 65 yards for a touchdown.
Detwiler also turned a short pass into an 84-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
“We have two guys [Detwiler and Reilly] who we feel can do special things with the ball in their hands, but give credit to the guys who are blocking, too,” said Conestoga head coach Matt Diamond. “They know if they can create a seam, these two guys can find it. When we really needed a big play to pick us up, those guys provided it. Our special teams were special today, and they really did a nice job.”
The victory improved the Pioneers’ record to 3-1, while Lower Merion falls to 2-2.
With the Pioneers holding a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, Conestoga received a fumble at the Lower Merion 20 yard line; and a few plays later, Pioneer senior kicker Jonah Stein booted a 31-yard field goal to give the visitors a 10-0 lead.
Lower Merion came right back with a long drive all the way down to the Conestoga 1 yard line, highlighted by several pass completions by senior quarterback Jack Lledo and some solid gains by senior running back Jay Zheng. But facing third-and-goal at the 1, LM did not get the ball into the end zone in the next two tries, and Conestoga took possession.
“Our defense made a big goal-line stand there,” said Diamond. “Lower Merion is a good football team with speed and quickness – they do some things offensively that you really have to game-plan for.”
Conestoga boosted its lead to 17-0 in the second quarter when it put together a 7-play, 50-yard touchdown march. The big play on the drive was a 25-yard pass from Conestoga senior quarterback Calvin Shirley to Detwiler.
With less than two minutes to go before halftime, Lower Merion capitalized in a Conestoga fumble at the Pioneers’ 25 yard line. Lledo hit Sam Zheng with a 24-yard reception, then Lledo plunged over from the 1 yard line to make it a 17-7 game at halftime.
Detwiler stepped up on Conestoga’s first possession of the second half. On 3rd-and-11 from the Pioneers’ 11 yard line, Detwiler ran a pass pattern across the middle, reached up and grabbed Shirley’s pass despite good defensive coverage, and outraced the LM defenders for an 84-yard touchdown to make it 24-7.
Three minutes later, Lledo (as a defensive back) came up with a big play, intercepting a Conestoga pass at the Lower Merion 42 yard line. Then, on 3rd-and-5 from the LM 48 yard line, Lledo (at quarterback) hit Sam Zheng for a 42-yard completion to bring the ball to the Conestoga 10. Two plays later, Jay Zheng ran to the right for a 5-yard touchdown, cutting Conestoga’s lead to 24-14.
“Jay and Jack are the focal point, the driving force of our team,” said Lower Merion head coach Joe Augustine. “They’re always finding ways to make plays. They drive hard, they don’t ever quit, and our other guys feed off of them. Those guys make coaching worthwhile, they really do.”
Conestoga stopped Lower Merion’s momentum on the very next play, as Reilly broke loose for a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 31-14 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Lower Merion drove deep into Conestoga territory, but an interception by junior defensive back Bryce Beltrante at the Pioneers’ 5 yard line ended that drive. Conestoga ran the ball on nine consecutive plays – most of the runs were by junior Jon Quici – and a punt pinned Lower Merion to its own 12 yard line.
Two plays later, a high center snap by Lower Merion rolled out of the end zone for a safety, and on the ensuing free kick, Detwiler raced down the right sideline for a 65-yard touchdown.
“I’m really pleased with how our kids responded today and with how they played,” said Diamond. I thought [senior linebacker] Christian Lariviere, one of our captains, was all over the place,” said Diamond. “I thought [senior defensive back] Chase Kelly played really well. Our offensive line, when we needed them late in the game, allowed us to run the ball and keep Lower Merion’s offense off the field. Calvin Shirley [at quarterback] really managed well, made some good checks at the line, put the ball where it needed to be, and overall played a really nice game.”
Lower Merion head coach Joe Augustine said, “Today was a really big test for us, Conestoga is one of those upper-level teams in the Central League. We made some mistakes, which we’ll shore up; special teams were big today. We’re able to take a little bit of confidence from today’s game in that we’re able to kind of hang with those big dogs. Moving forward, this will turn into a positive thing.”
Augustine also praised junior lineman Xavier Archawski and sophomore middle linebacker Andrew Cook, who was making his season debut after off-season knee surgery.
“Xavier shows every week that he’s a dominant player on the offensive and defensive lines,” said Augustine. “In a couple of years, some [college] team is going to be lucky to have him.”
“Having Andrew back in the middle helped us shore up our run defense. Conestoga has a heck of a running attack, they like to bash it in there, and having that force in the middle [Cook] helps stabilize us and push us. He’s a phenomenal young football player, and having him back in the fold now gives us a little extra edge, extra attitude, that our players can feed off of.”
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