POTTSVILLE – After relying on its ground game for the majority of Saturday's District 11 Class AA semifinal game, North Schuylkill went to the air to save its season.
Unable to punch the ball in on the ground on any of its three overtime possessions during in a game in which the Spartans compiled close to 200 yards rushing in regulation the Spartans turned to their passing game twice in overtime.
The resulting touchdowns allowed North Schuylkill to escape with a 35-28 victory.
"I don't know what to say. We live on to fight another night," North Schuylkill coach Rick Geist said. "We just made one play more than they did. That's it."
With the win, North Schuylkill (12-0) moves into the district final for the first time since 1999. The Spartans will face Northern Lehigh, a 20-17 winner over Catasauqua, on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Mahanoy Area.
Meanwhile, Panther Valley ends its memorable season at 9-3.
"Their kids made plays," Damian said. "They have some great athletes over there. They have been making plays all year and that's what happens. You got to make the plays in big games and their kids did. Our kids played great. game. They battled back.
"Nobody has a thing to be ashamed of. Our kids have to walk off with their heads held high. This was one of the greatest teams in Panther Valley history."
The contest was finally decided in the third overtime when the Spartans converted a fourth down attempt for the second straight possession.
On fourth-and-six, Steve Ennis stretched out and made a great catch in the back-end of the end zone to haul in the go-ahead touchdown from Spartan quarterback Tom Ferrari.
That forced Panther Valley to answer with a touchdown.
Kyle McAvoy took the ball for two yards on first down. On the next play, however, the Spartans' Tyler Dean ruined the Panthers' chances to send it into another overtime period when he made a diving interception of a pass that was tipped by teammate Eddie Pavalako at the line of scrimmage.
"We've relied on our defense a lot this year," said Pavalko, who rushed for 119-yards and two touchdowns on the other side of the ball. "We take pride in our defense and they got a couple of plays on us during the game. But when it came down to crunch time, we buckled down."
His head coach couldn't have agreed more.
"Our defense has been making plays all year," Geist said. "When we need a play, our defense usually makes it. Tonight was no different."
The game would have never went into overtime if the Panthers wouldn't have put together one last successful drive prior to the end of regulation. With 7:27 left in the game, Panther Valley took over at the Spartans' 46-yard line following a punt.
On the first play, Casey Lawrence carried the ball for a 24 yard gain. After a short run by McAvoy, Lawrence hit Jake Dunn on a 13-yard pass play to give the Panthers a first-and-goal on the five-yard line. Two plays later, Lawrence tied the game at 28-28 with a one-yard plunge with 5:31 left.
North Schuylkill took the ensuing kickoff and threatened to pull out the victory in regulation. The Spartans put together a 12-play drive that covered 43 yards setting them up on the Panthers' 20-yard line. But Charlie Hutnick's 37-yard field goal attempt was short, forcing overtime.
After Hutnick shanked another field goal attempt for the Spartans in the first overtime, the Panthers needed a score to pull out the upset win. But on their first play from scrimmage, Lawrence coughed up the ball at the five-yard line and Mike Shinkus recovered for North Schuylkill to force a second overtime.
In the second OT, the Panthers had the first possession. Lawrence made up for his fumble by hitting Dunn with a 10-yard touchdown and a 28-21 lead.
Panther Valley was within a play of winning, but North Schuylkill converted a 4th-and-four play when Ferrari found Shinkus wide open in the right corner of the end zone – sending the game into a third extra frame.
A few minutes later, Ennis' touchdown catch and Dean's interception ended the Panthers' season.
"Hats off to North Schuylkill. Good luck to them next week in the district championship. Hopefully they can bring it home for the Anthracite [Football League]."