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Blue Raiders hang on against Conwell-Egan behind Lopez's rushing, Radabaugh's recovery

By Larry Etter

Press & Journal Staff

717-944-4628
Posted 11/26/18

After cruising past North Schuylkill the previous week, running back Patrick Garwo and his Conwell-Egan teammates were counting down the hours in anticipation of a rematch with the Middletown Area …

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Blue Raiders hang on against Conwell-Egan behind Lopez's rushing, Radabaugh's recovery

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After cruising past North Schuylkill the previous week, running back Patrick Garwo and his Conwell-Egan teammates were counting down the hours in anticipation of a rematch with the Middletown Area High School Blue Raiders in the state quarterfinals.

Following last year’s embarrassing 49-7 loss to the Raiders in West Chester, the Eagles were looking for revenge. Unlike last year’s blowout, Friday’s game at Milton Hershey came down to the wire.

The Blue Raiders turned aside the Eagles’ dreams, however, hanging on for a tense 21-14 victory in the frigid air that left Conwell-Egan frustrated once again. Junior running back Jose Lopez had another stellar night Friday behind a great effort from Middletown’s offensive line, rushing for nearly 270 yards and all three of the Raiders’ touchdowns in the win.

The Eagles gave it their best effort. The Blue Raiders (12-1) were just a bit better.

Middletown moves on to the state semifinals to play Scranton Prep (13-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Bethlehem Stadium, 1115 Linden St., Bethlehem.

Scranton Prep beat Mountoursville, 45-7, on Saturday. They are another team looking for revenge, as Middletown has ousted them the last two season from the state playoffs — 40-13 in 2016 and 35-0 in 2017.

Win on Friday and it’s a third straight return to Hersheypark Stadium for the PIAA Class 3A title game at noon Saturday, Dec. 8. They would play the winner of Sharon and Aliquippa, who will square off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Slippery Rock University. The Blue Raiders have lost the title game the last two years after going undefeated in the regular season — 30-13 to Beaver Falls in 2016 and 41-24 to Quaker Valley in 2017.

On Friday, Gage Radabaugh was one of the defensive stars. It was his recovery of a late Conwell-Egan fumble that sealed the fate of the Eagles.

“At 5 foot 6 and 150 pounds, Radabaugh plays hard,” Middletown head coach Brett Myers said following the win.

Of course Lopez and Radabaugh were not the only stars of the game. There was much credit to go around on both sides of the ball.

After spotting the Raiders a 14-0 halftime lead, Conwell-Egan battled back in the second half, scoring with 6:40 left in the third quarter to make it a 14-7 game, and then scoring again with just less than eight minutes left in the fourth after the Middletown team went up 21-7.

Then, adding to the tension, the Eagles had two chances in the late minutes to tie the score. But the Middletown defense would have none of it. By stopping two late drives, including the decisive Radabaugh recovery with 1:10 left, the Blue Raider defenders secured the win and punched their ticket to the semifinals.

“Our kids take a lot of pride in their defense, and it showed tonight,” Myers said.

But the offensive line excelled as well. By now, the names are familiar to anyone who pays attention to local high school football. Morgan Billman, Ethan Miller, Joey Gusler, Cole Senior and Collin Heffner performed very well against a Conwell-Egan defense determined to stop the Raiders’ stalwart running game.

The Raiders won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, letting Conwell-Egan have the ball first. Garwo, a Boston College commit, wanted to have a better game than he did the previous year and got the call on first down following the opening kickoff. Radabaugh greeted him on that first carry for the tackle. As it turned out, Garwo ended up with only 3 yards rushing in the game on 10 carries.

Despite a 27-yard pass from Alex Goldsby to Sean Stokes in their first possession, the Eagles were stopped at the Middletown 35 when Senior crushed Terome Mitchell for a 3-yard loss on fourth and 1.

Lopez’s first carry of the night went for 19 yards, but the Blue Raiders were stopped and forced to punt ending their first offensive set. The Eagles took over at their 32 and put together a solid drive that was kickstarted with a 31-yard run by Dajuan Harris. Harris had a big night for the Eagles, scoring both of their touchdowns and racking up 163 yards rushing. Three plays later, the Eagles were perched at the Middletown 12 following another good run by Harris and a personal foul against the Raiders. But Egan hurt itself with a pair of penalties and the drive ran out of downs at the 12 when linebacker Lamar Ventura successfully defended a fourth down pass by Goldsby with 1:48 left in the first quarter.

On first down, Lopez broke the scoreless deadlock with one of his patented, dazzling runs. Finding a crease on the right side and following a good lead block by Ventura, Lopez went the distance — 88 yards — for the touchdown. Avery Williams booted the PAT and the Blue Raiders led 7-0.

Middletown’s defense, with Billman, Miller, Senior, Radabaugh, Trayvon Joseph, Richie Sykes and Chris Joseph leading the way, gave up just 23 yards through the second quarter while the offense scored again to take a 14-0 lead.

With 11:01 left in the half, the Raiders took over at their own 33. Sykes carried three times for 21 yards and Scott Ash connected with Ventura for 11 yards following a pair of short runs by Lopez as the Raiders moved to the Conwell-Egan 27. But the promising drive took a step backward when the Raiders were called for holding.

On second and 25 from the 46, however, Lopez lit up the scoreboard again. Getting a bit of room on the left side this time, Lopez made a couple cuts and juke moves to break free and outran the Eagles’ safety to the end zone with 7:36 left in the half. The 14-0 lead held up heading into halftime.

Getting the ball to start the second half, it appeared as if the Blue Raiders were ready to pad their lead. Keyed by a 19-yard run by Lopez and a 35-yard pass from Ash to Ventura, the Raiders quickly had a first and goal at the 4. But a hard hit and ensuing fumble recovered by the Eagles slammed the door on the opportunity.

Pumped up by the turnover, Conwell-Egan used the momentum switch to its advantage.

Four plays into their possession after securing a first down at the 16, the Eagles stunned the Middletown defense when Harris stepped out of a tackle at the 20 and raced 84 yards for a touchdown with 6:40 left in the third quarter.

Conwell-Egan then stopped the Raiders’ next drive just past midfield, forcing a punt by Williams that rolled dead at the Eagles’ 15. On first down, Garwo lost the ball in the backfield and Trayvon Joseph alertly recovered for the Blue Raiders at the 11. Lopez carried twice, the second one good for 6 yards and his third touchdown of the game. And while the 21-7 lead with 1:53 left in the third looked good for the Raiders, there was still a lot of time left.

Solid defensive plays by Antonio Bryant, Ventura and Chris Joseph ended the third period, and a key stop on fourth and 4 stopped the Eagles on the first play of the final quarter. But the Eagles’ defense would not give up, and the Raiders were forced to punt after going three-and-out.

The Eagles got a big break when Williams had to smother a low snap at the 34, not getting a chance to kick the ball away. The Eagles made short work of the opportunity, with Harris going the last 22 yards on another good run. With 7:49 left in the game, the score stood at 21-14 Middletown. The stage was set for the tense finish.

The tension rose another notch when Stokes intercepted Ash’s pass three plays later. Another low snap cost the Raiders 16 yards on second down, forcing Ash to try to throw for a first down. Another defensive stand by the Raiders kept the Eagles from going for a tie score.

After Harris was stopped a yard short on fourth and 2, the Raiders were back on offense at their own 39. Lopez carried for one first down but was shut down the next three plays, forcing a Williams punt.

His kick pinned the Eagles at their own 15 with 1:42 left. But the Eagles got out of the hole on a pair of passes from Goldsby to Andrew Garwo. A holding penalty against the Raiders gave Conwell-Egan a first down at the Middletown 47. Another Goldsby pass, this one to Patrick Garwo, went for 16 yards to the Middletown 31.

At that point, the Middletown fans were holding their collective breath, hoping the Raiders’ defense could hang on for another minute. And that’s when the defense answered the challenge.

With Goldsby seeing a full-out blitz coming, he appeared to panic a bit and mishandled the snap. Radabaugh was there to corral the loose ball and save the day. With 1:10 left, Ash took a knee three times to ice the victory.