MAHANOY CITY - Northern Lehigh head coach Joe Tout knew his team was so close to delivering a knockout punch to North Schuylkill inthe District 11 Class 2A championship on Saturday night.
The Bulldogs had those hopes stripped from them in the fourth quarter as the Spartans ran off 19 straight points to pull out a 33-26 triumph before an overflow crowd at Alumni Stadium.
The first District title for the Spartans in 13 years didn't come easy, but they earned the right to meet West Catholic on Saturday in the PIAA Interdistricts at 1 p.m. at Palisades High School.
The Bulldogs had the Spartans in trouble. Despite missing numerous opportunities early in the contest with good field position, Northern Lehigh had a 26-20 lead and were in the midst of a 10-play drive and had a second-and-four on the Spartans' 14.
First a hold on a nice run from junior Cody Remaley made it second down back at the 23 and on the next play, a missed exchange on the handoff was recovered by North Schuylkill's Tyler Laudeman with 7:10 remaining in the game.
The Spartans offense took it from there driving 10 plays with Kody Flail going the final 15 yards with 3:17 left and Charlie Hutnick booting the all important extra point for a 27-26 advantage that the unbeaten Anthracite League champs (13-0) wouldn't give up.
Steve Ennis intercepted a pass on the Northern Lehigh 18 on a 4th and 22 and returned it to the Bulldogs' 18 for the Spartans.
Two plays later, Flait ran for another 15-yard score and with the extra point attempt no good, Northern Lehigh was still within a touchdown (33-26) with 1:47 to play.
The Bulldogs moved out to the 48-yard line, but Zach Parnell's interception down on his own 13 ended any hopes of a comeback as the Spartans ran out the clock.
"If we punch that in late and we score, the game's over," said Tout referring to the drive that was stopped by the fumble earlier in the final quarter. "In the first half, we had those opportunities to score early and we didn't. And then our kids fought back after they put the first points on the scoreboard.
"It was just a great effort tonight. These were two teams that really wanted this game and our kids played with a lot of heart tonight."
The Bulldogs had great field position in the entire first quarter, but just couldn't put any points on the board.
After holding the Spartans to a four and out off of the opening kickoff, they got good field position on the NS 38 only to have Flail come up with an interception to halt that drive.
The Bulldogs took over on the Spartans' 42 to start their next offensive series after stopping them on downs, but ran out of downs themselves.
Kirk Bender gave Northern Lehigh good field position again at the Spartans' 34 when he came up with an interception. Still, the Spartans wouldn't budge defensively and stopped them again.
North Schuylkill marched 70 yards on nine plays to start the second quarter and Ed Pavalko bulled in from the one with 7:34 left in the half. Hutnick's kick made it 7-0, but not for long.
The Bulldogs went with a reverse on the kickoff and Jake Kern raced 88 yards down the left sideline. The extra point kick was blocked, but Northern Lehigh was back in the game trailing 7-6.
"We had that return in all year and we hadn't used it," said Tout. "We figured early, with the wind, they'd try to boot one deep and when we used it in the past, it's been a real good play for us."
It gave the Bulldogs a spark as Joey Seremula came up with an interception on the next series giving Northern Lehigh good field position again at the Spartans' 33.
Matt Gill took a pitch from quarterback Tyler Bolton and connected with Seremula four plays later to put the ball down on the two. Gill ran it in from there and Remaley pushed across for the two-point conversion giving Nolehi a 14-5 lead.
Less than a minute later, however, Pavalko found the end zone again for the Spartans from the five and a Hutnick PAT tied it at 14-14 with still 2:30 left in the half.
Back came the Bulldogs as Bolton found Kern open for a 21-yard scoring strike on fourth down with 26 seconds left giving Nolehi a 20-14 halftime lead.
"In the first half we gave up two fourth down touchdowns and one on a kickoff return so I wasn't too worried," said North Schuylkill head coach Rick Geist. "We went in at halftime with a good feeling that we could do it."
The Bulldogs took a 26-14 lead on a nine-yard run by Remaley to cap a 60-yard drive on the kickoff to start the second half. It was their only touch in the third quarter as the Spartans ran off 16 plays putting the ball down on the Nolehi 1 for the first play of the final quarter where Pavalko scored his third TD to make it 26-20.