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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Cocalico faces Cheltenham in the PIAA Class 5A semifinals

It’s been a glorious season for Cocalico, which captured its first district title in 25 years with last Friday’s dominating victory over Cedar Cliff...
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It’s been a glorious season for Cocalico, which captured its first district title in 25 years with last Friday’s dominating victory over Cedar Cliff.

Now the Eagles will attempt to navigate some relatively uncharted waters for their program: the state semifinals.

Up next is a Black Friday date with reigning District 1 champion Cheltenham in the PIAA Class 5A semifinals.

Here’s a preview of the game:

PIAA Class 5A Semifinals

Cocalico (11-2) vs. Cheltenham (13-1)

Friday, 6 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium

ABOUT CHELTENHAM: The Panthers are located in Wyncote, Montogomery County — about six miles from center city Philadelphia. They compete in the Suburban One American division. After capturing the Suburban One title in the regular season, Cheltenham won the the District 1 championship with a 43-42 shootout victory over Academy Park.

In that game, the Panthers scored the go-ahead touchdown with a 25-yard strike from quarterback Adonis Hunter to wideout TJ Harris, who barely kept his feet long enough to stretch the ball across the goal line as he went to the ground with 28.6 seconds left. Hunter and Harris then hooked up for a successful 2-point conversion.

But the game wasn’t over. A series of penalties after the conversion forced Cheltenham to kick off the ball inside its 10-yard line, and Academy Park returned it all the way to the Panther 18 in the game’s closing seconds. The Knights scored on a TD pass from Barry Brown to Malik Jackson with 16 seconds to go. Academy Park elected to try for a 2-point conversion to win the game, but Cheltenham foiled the play and held on for the hard-fought win.

It was the first district title in program history for Cheltenham, which has won 11 straight games. The Panthers’ only loss was a 19-7 setback to Abington on Sept. 6.

Hunter, a 6-0, 200-pound senior, has completed 100 of 184 passes for 1,886 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. He’s been intercepted six times. Harris, the team’s leading receiver, has caught 34 passes for 609 yards and eight scores. The Panthers’ top rusher is Jamir Barnes, a 5-11, 185-pound senior, who has 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns on 186 attempts.

Cheltenham’s offense averages 183 rushing yards per game, 135 passing yards per game, and 36.3 points per game.

ABOUT COCALICO: The Eagles captured the third District 3 championship in program history with a 45-7 rout of Cedar Cliff in last Friday’s title game. Thanks to a long touchdown run on their second play from scrimmage and a quick Colt turnover, Cocalico had a 14-0 lead before the game was three minutes old. It was 21-0 by the end of the first quarter and 38-0 at halftime, and the only suspense left in the second half was whether the Eagle players would be able to give head coach Dave Gingrich the traditional post-game water cooler shower. (They were successful.)

Quarterback Noah Palm turned in yet another strong two-way effort for Cocalico, rushing for 116 yards and three touchdowns to lead the offense and coming up with a key fumble recovery on defense. Steven Flinton scored on a 67-yard run on the second play of the game on his way to a five-carry, 85-yard performance, and Ronald Zahm added a pair of short TD dives for the Eagles.

Cocalico held Mid-Penn rushing leader Jaheim Morris to 45 yards on 18 carries and limited Cedar Cliff to 134 total yards. The Colts turned the ball over three times, managed just seven first downs, and didn’t find the end zone until Cocalico’s defensive starters were wrapped up in overcoats on the frigid sidelines.

It was the first district title since 1994 for the Eagles, who picked up their seventh straight victory. Cocalico’s only losses this season were a 56-7 defeat to L-L League Section 1 champ Manheim Township on Sept. 20 and a 46-43 loss to Section 2 nemesis Manheim Central one week later.

Palm, a University of New Hampshire recruit, is the main lynchpin of the Cocalico offense. The pilot of the Eagles’ Veer attack is the team’s leading rusher, with 1,432 yards and 33 touchdowns on 172 carries, and has 1,014 yards and nine scores on 48-for-75 passing. A two-way starter, Palm has also scored three defensive touchdowns from his spot in the secondary.

Flinton, a sophomore, is second on the team with 657 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Zahm has rushed for 630 yards and six touchdowns, and is Palm’s top target with 29 catches for 677 yards and eight scores.

The winner of Friday’s semifinal will advance to the state championship game, where they will face either District 7 champion Gateway (12-2) or District 12 kingpin Archbishop Wood (9-3). The state final will be held on Friday, Dec. 6 at Hersheypark Stadium.