Bulldogs reach Districts
Northern Lehigh's Danny Marsh (3) heads down the sideline as Palmerton's Tre Nelson (22) and Jerry Pereira (2) give chase.
Win and you're in. It doesn't get any simpler than that.
No complicated formulas to figure out. No scoreboard watching to worry about.
That's the situation Northern Lehigh found itself in on the final weekend of the regular season. Needing to beat rival Palmerton to qualify for the District 11 playoffs, the Bulldogs did just that, pulling away for a 31-7 victory on Friday night.
"We knew coming in that a win put us in Districts," said Northern Lehigh coach Joe Tout. "We talked to the kids this week about taking care us business.
"We made our kids aware that in a rival game like this, they were going to get Palmerton's best shot. I know Palmerton hadn't won a game, but 0-9 is different when it's just across the bridge. I thought our kids did a nice job of taking their best shot and responding to it."
The Bombers' best shot came early in the game and it was provided by their talented two-way lineman John Snyder. Snyder, who has been a shining light in an otherwise dark season for Palmerton, scooped up a Bulldog fumble and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown. The score tied the game at 7-7 midway through the opening quarter.
"John Snyder is a beast," said Palmerton coach Chris Walkowiak. "If he's not an all-state player, I don't know who is.
"He was all over the field tonight, making plays in their backfield, chasing down ball carries all over the field, and then adding that fumble return."
When you're a heavy favorite, as the Bulldogs were last night, the last thing you want to do is give your opponent a reason to believe.
So with the game tied after one quarter and Palmerton thinking upset, Northern Lehigh turned to its own "all-everything" standout Caleb Johnson and Johnson delivered.
After a Dan Marsh to Darien Middaugh 28-yard completion gave the Bulldogs great field position, Johnson raced 33 yard for the tie-breaking touchdown early in the second quarter.
Johnson added a one-yard TD run with 3:38 left in the half to make it 19-7. He then capped his big night with scoring runs of one and 74 yards in the second half.
"I thought Danny [Marsh] set the pace for us early with both his rushing and passing," said Tout. "I think that softened them up a little and allowed Caleb [Johnson] to start grinding it out.
"They were daring us to throw early and Danny made some nice reads and nice throws. Darien [Middaugh] and Stephen [Ingles] caught some big passes and that got us going. Once that happened, it opened it up a little more for Caleb."
Johnson finished the game with 192 yards and four touchdowns on 18 carries. The performance pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
"We wanted to force them to throw," said Walkowiak. "We put everybody in the box and tried to make them beat us through the air.
"Give Northern Lehigh credit. They did a nice job of making some big plays in the passing game. Eventually Johnson broke some big runs. He's such a great player, it's almost impossible to hold him in check the entire game."
With the win, Northern Lehigh (7-3) will more than likely be the No. 4 seed in the Class AA playoffs, although a Pen Argyl loss to Bangor on Sunday could bump the Bulldogs up to the No. 3 seed. Depending on how everything works out this weekend, the Bulldogs will face either Catasauqua or Tamaqua in next weekend's semifinals.
"I'm really happy for our seniors," said Tout. "This is the fourth straight year they have made the district playoffs. That's a great accomplishment and something they should take a lot of pride in."