Area teams producing special plays
Palmerton, Northwestern and Jim Thorpe all picked up victories last week.
The Bombers and Tigers - the top two scoring offenses in the area through four weeks - once again put up big offensive numbers.
Jim Thorpe - the top defense in the area in five of the last six seasons - shut out it’s opponent.
While all three teams relied on a proven strength to get their wins, there was also a common thread that ran through each victory - impactful special teams play.
Palmerton scored a pair of touchdowns and made three huge plays on special teams in its 54-0 win over Marian.
Northwestern used big special team plays to set up its first two touchdowns in a 49-7 win over Lehighton.
Jim Thorpe’s key special teams’ play was probably the most vital to a win as a second-half onside kick recovery in a one-possession game eventually led to a 20-0 victory over Salisbury.
This week’s OVERTIME column will look at the role special teams played last week, and also get some thoughts from the coaches on the importance of special teams from week-to-week during the season.
“We place a high priority on special teams, since they can lead to huge momentum swings in a game, and help to establish field position during the games,” explained Palmerton coach Chris Walkowiak.
That’s exactly what happened Friday night as the Bombers stuffed a fake punt by Marian, giving them great field position and leading to the game’s first touchdown. Later in the first quarter, Palmerton’s Shade Klotz broke through to block a Colt punt before Drake Dalton scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown.
Walkowiak said those two plays early in the game helped the Bombers build great momentum.
“On the fake punt, Stephen Jones did a tremendous job of reading his keys, and actually bailing us out of trouble,” Walkowiak said. “If not for him being focused on his assignment, they may have converted.
“The punt block was executed with tremendous hustle by Shade Klotz to get his hands on the ball, which allowed Dalton to scoop and score for a touchdown. Whenever we can score with our special teams, it is an added bonus, and is emphasized on a consistent basis by our special teams coach Fred Lesher.”
The Bombers added a second special teams score when Danny Lucykanish returned the second-half kickoff 75 yards for score.
While Northwestern and Jim Thorpe didn’t score special team touchdowns, they did set up scores for their offenses.
The Tigers used a long return on the opening kickoff to setup the game’s first TD against Lehighton. A short time later, they stormed through and took down the Indian punter after a bad snap.
The two big plays produced a pair of touchdown drives of less than 20 yards, and a 14-0 lead.
“We had two important special team plays in the first quarter that helped us grab the momentum early,” said Northwestern coach Josh Snyder. “The plays by our kick return and punt units gave us short fields to work with, and we took advantage of that to build an early lead.”
For Jim Thorpe, the key special teams play wasn’t a kick return or a momentum changer by the punt return unit. Instead, the Olympians made a play with their kickoff team.
After a scoreless first half with Salisbury, Thorpe finally took a 7-0 lead midway through the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, coach Mark Rosenberger called for an onside kick, and the Olympians executed it to perfection. They recovered the kick, and two plays later found themselves in the end zone once again for a 14-0 lead.
“It was definitely a huge play in the football game,” said Rosenberger. “We have several onside kicks we practice, and watching film on Salisbury, we thought our middle kick had a chance to work. Salisbury had a large opening in the middle of its kick receiving unit, and their kids were about 15-18 yards back.
“Kieran Mele did a great job of executing the kick, and then going down and recovering it himself.”
All three coaches said big special teams plays are the result of a commitment to those units at practice.
“Our special teams are a crucial aspect of our practices, and we work on them every day,” said Walkowiak. “We also put the best available players on the field.
“We coach up all our players to take pride in our special teams, since it is a great way to get players on the field for us in a very meaningful situation. Our special team players are considered starters - just as they would be on offense or defense.”
Rosenberger - who noted the Olympians work on special teams for a period of their practice at least three or four times a week - explained that special teams often times only get noticed by fans when they produce touchdowns or huge yardage plays. But coaches know the impact can be far greater.
“Obviously, the returns for touchdowns are great, and get a lot of attention when they happen,” Rosenberger said. “But you don’t get a lot of those during the course of a season.
“We like to focus on how special teams can impact field position. There is a lot of hidden yardage that you can gain with strong coverage and return units. That yardage can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Snyder said the Tigers devote 30 minutes during each practice to work on special teams.
“It’s something we put a big emphasis on,” he said. “Special teams can create momentum shifts, and produce game-changing plays that win games.”
Rosenberger said he and his coaching staff make sure the players know the importance of playing special teams.
“We tell our kids it’s a great opportunity to get on the field and contribute,” Rosenberger said “We try to give some of our top reserves the chance to be on some special team units. But it’s not a gift. They have to earn it, and prove they deserve to be out there.
“If they don’t prepare and play up the level that we think is necessary, they don’t keep that spot.”
Snyder said the Tigers theory on special teams is to use their best players.
“We use a lot of starters - especially early in the season,” he explained. “Once we get to around this point of the season, we might start playing a few younger kids who have impressed us as varsity reserves or during JV games. But we aren’t going to sacrifice key personal just to give them a play off here or there.
“One play can change a game. So we go with the players we think give us the best chance to be successful - that goes for offense, defense and special teams.”
SHUTOUT FOR SWARM ... Jim Thorpe evened its record at 2-2 after posting a 20-0 victory last Friday against Salisbury.
The game marked the ninth straight season that the Olympians have recorded at least one shutout. The last year they failed to do so was in 2012.
Since Rosenberger took over the Thorpe head coaching job in 1998, the program has posted 46 shutouts - more than any other area team (the next closest over that time span is 38 by Northern Lehigh). That means in 30% of his victories, the Red Swarm has not allowed any points.
The Olympians have a way to go to catch the team with the most consecutive years with at least one shutout. That mark belongs to Northwestern, whose stretch covers 16 seasons (1995-2010).
SPEAKING OF SHUTOUTS ... Palmerton also posted a shutout last Friday, cruising to a 54-0 victory over Marian.
Coupled with a 41-0 win over Panther Valley the previous week, the Blue Bombers have posted back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 2007, when they downed both Northwestern (20-0) and Northern Lehigh (35-0).
Walkowiak’s team will have a tough task trying to shut down this week’s opponent - undefeated Catasauqua - but if they do, it would mark the first time since 1985 that Palmerton has posted three straight shutouts.
AMORIM LONG TD RUN ... Northern Lehigh’s Trevor Amorim excited the Bulldog faithful last Friday during the second quarter of their game against Notre Dame when he broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown run.
The last time a Nolehi player had a longer TD run from scrimmage was Nov. 7, 2014 - 65 games ago - when Nate Farber got free for an 82-yarder against Western Wayne.
Over the past 25 years, Amorim is one of eight Bulldogs to record a touchdown run of at least 80 yards. The others include Farber, Cody Remaley, Kris Krawchuk, Nick Hosford, Jason Kunkle, Ryan Hluschak and Brad Walters.
NOLEHI STREAK SNAPPED ... Northern Lehigh failed to score in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against Notre Dame. That not only cost the Bulldogs a chance to win the game, but it also stopped a streak.
Joe Tout’s team had scored in 13 straight quarters to open the season.
Over the last 25 seasons, only three times has an area team started their year with a longer streak. In 2017, Tamaqua began the year scoring on 20 straight quarters. Jim Thorpe tallied in 18 straight frames in 2006, while the Olympians also had a stretch of 14 straight scoring quarters to open the 2005 campaign.