Cocalico vs Cheltenham-PIAA 5A Football Semifinal

Cocalico quarterback Noah Palm (10) runs the ball against Cheltenham during second half action of a PIAA 5A football semifinal at Hersheypark Stadium Friday November 29, 2019. Cheltenham won 56-49.

HERSHEY — In a back-and-forth shootout where neither defense was stopping much, Cocalico was poised to break a tie when Cheltenham finally forced the Eagles to make a pivotal decision Friday night.

On fourth-and-5 from the Panthers’ 11 with 3:17 left, the Eagles went for a field goal. It sailed wide right — and Cheltenham responded with a game-winning drive.

Nate Edwards’ 4-yard touchdown run in the final minute gave Cheltenham a wild 56-49 win in the PIAA Class 5A semifinals in Hersheypark Stadium.

“If you would have told me we’d be standing here Nov. 29 in the state semifinal, playing to a 56-49 game with a chance to go to the state final, I would have laughed at you,” said Cocalico coach Dave Gingrich, who confirmed after the game that he is stepping down from his position after 16 seasons.

“I can't be more proud of the kids. They gave us everything they had.”

The game featured 15 touchdowns and 1,028 total yards of offense.

Possessed with incredible team speed, the Panthers (14-1) scored five touchdowns of at least 50 yards.

“We can't duplicate that in practice, I can tell you that,” Gingrich said. “Their speed really proved challenging for us to defend.”

The Eagles (11-3) countered with their top weapon; senior quarterback Noah Palm rushed for 193 yards and a pair of touchdowns, running his season TD total to 47 (35 rushing).

“It's sad, knowing that it's the last game,” Palm said. “We came out and played as a team and I can't ask for anything more than that.”

Ronald Zahm scored a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter, but injured his leg and didn't return after scoring with 3:55 left in the quarter.

Cody Shay, another of Cocalico's seniors, rushed for 129 yards and a pair of second-half touchdowns. His two-yard plunge gave Cocalico a 41-36 lead with 10 minutes left in the fourth and also started a flurry of scoring — three touchdowns in a span of about 30 seconds.

T.J. Harris returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a TD, but on the first play of the Eagles' next drive, Palm broke loose for a 59-yard score and the Eagles led 49-42.

“Noah's very, very special,” Gingrich said. “I knew that from the first day I coached him. I don't like losing and I think he likes it less than I do.”

On each of the three quick scores, both teams went for two-point conversions and each time the clock was mistakenly started. The officiating crew failed to recognize that, so the game lost a total of 14 seconds, which proved pivotal later on.

Cheltenham got a game-tying, 28-yard TD run by Edwards with 6:43 to go. That set the stage for Cocalico's drive that ended with the missed, 28-yard field goal.

“I felt we needed to come away with some points,” Gingrich said. “I thought that was our best option as to come away with points. Unfortunately, we didn't make the field goal.”

With no timeouts and the clock showing 45 seconds (would have been 59 seconds had time mistakenly not been run off earlier in the quarter) following the go-ahead Panther TD, Cocalico tried drawing up a trick play on the return, but ended up fumbling the ball — and game — away.

“They gave us everything they had, just like they have all year,” Gingrich said. “As a coach, what else can you ask for besides their best for 48 minutes.”