While it might seem difficult to top the excitement of beating a previously undefeated Catasauqua team in the last week of the regular season, Northwestern's 19-18 win over North Schuylkill to claim the Eastern Conference Class II championship did the trick.
Northwestern got off to what appeared to be a strong start, but a penalty and two incomplete passes turned what was a promising drive into a failed start. The Tigers turned the ball over on downs and on their next possession, fumbled to give North Schuylkill the ball at the Northwestern 43-yard line.
From there, the Spartans' offense started to click.
A 48-yard pass from Bobby Grigas to Glenn Weist set up a two-yard run by Matt Smarkanic to put North Schuylkill up 6-0. On their next set of downs, the Spartans started at their own 47 and seven plays later, Grigas hit Tevin Murray on a 26-yard scoring pass as the Spartans took a 12-0 lead.
Harry Hall started to pick up yardage running directly at the Spartans, but they could only get as close as the 14-yard line and come up with a field goal from Brandon Miller for their only points of the first half, cutting the deficit to 12-3. Hall finished the night with 60 yards rushing, putting him over 1,600 yards on the season.
"I'm just glad I was able to do this for our seniors," said Hall. "They deserve this."
The second-half would belong to the Tigers (9-3). Taylor Breininger's 31 yard kickoff return set up Northwestern with the ball at its 46-yard line. From there, Frank Dangello connected with Alex Bobbyn on a 38-yard touchdown pass to make it a 12-9 game.
North Schuylkill killed the momentum with a drive of their own, but they too failed on the extra-point attempt and led 18-9 deep into the third quarter.
The Tigers used one of their patented long, time-consuming drives that took almost nine minutes and was capped by a 20-yard field goal from Brandon Miller making it 18-12. Northwestern's defense came up big and shut down the Spartans' top running back, Austin Hummel, who sat out the first half due to disciplinary reasons.
Northwestern's winning drive started at their own 46 and this time, was a short and sweet drive started by a 49-yard pass connection from Dangello to Cam Richardson that took the Tigers down to the North Schuylkill five-yard line. Uncharacteristically, the Tigers running game was shut down and on third-and-goal, Dangello looked right and then came back to the left side of the field to find Richardson in the end zone to tie the game. Miller, who hit a game-winning extra-point to beat Catasauqua two weeks ago, did it again by nailing the kick to put the Tigers up 19-18.
Dangello threw for 185 yards on the night, making him Northwestern's single-season and career passing leader and he still has a year to play. Earlier in the season, Dangello became the Tigers' most prolific touchdown thrower and finished the season with 17 TD passes.
"We knew we could be good," said Dangello. "We should have been in districts, but we weren't and right now, this is justice, because the seniors went out the right way."
The senior leadership was key for the Tigers this season and coach Josh Snyder believes those seniors were a special group of players.
"I've been around football for a long time as a player and a coach and you just don't get a group of seniors like this very often," explained Snyder. "They just willed this team to never give up throughout the year. Even last year, these guys stepped up as juniors and really took charge. It was a tough year, because we got beat seven times, but these guys never gave up."
Members of the team and coaching staff pointed to Northwestern's comeback win over Notre Dame as a turning point in the season. Jake Najarian was a big part of both the offensive and defensive lines and led the team with six sacks and agreed that win was important.
"The win over Notre Dame where we toughed it out in the fourth quarter ... we really knew we had special things coming for our team. We were able to turn things around and it resulted in a championship," said Najarian.
The defense again stepped up and was able to contain the North Schuylkill offense on back-to-back drives thanks to interceptions by Richardson and Bobbyn that sealed the Eastern Conference championship.
"It was absolutely crazy. What a heck of a way to end the game and what a heck of a way to end the season," said Bobbyn. "I was in the right place at the right time. Sometimes that happens."