HERSHEY-Just when it looked like St. Pat's had all the momentum against Hershey on Thursday night, the Panthers snatched it by scoring the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter.
With the lead, Hershey added another touchdown in the fourth quarter to beat the Irish 25-14 at Summers Field and win the district championship in a highly anticipated battle between two undefeated teams.
"The kids played their tail off," said Panther coach Ryan Smith. "They faced some adversity. They stuck with it and fought all the way to the end."
To begin the game, St. Pat's (7-1) got good field position when Drew McClellen returned the opening kickoff to the Irish 48 yard line.
St. Pat's got a first down in Hershey territory but was stopped by the Panther defense. The Irish then tried a fake punt with McClellen but he was stopped at the 35 and Hershey had the ball.
The Panthers (8-0) then got their first big play when Gaige Marshall carried the ball to the Irish 11 for a gain of 45 yards.
Then on fourth down from the two, Josh Margritz scored on a run up the middle to put Hershey ahead.
Early in the second quarter, St. Pat's drove into Hershey territory. But quarterback Alex Harms missed a backward swing pass intended for Collin Pieper toward the right sideline. Margritz scooped the ball up and ran it back 65 yards for the touchdown.
A two point conversion that followed a botched snap on the extra point failed and the Panthers led 13-0.
The score remained the same until late in the first half. Hershey was forced to punt and the ball was snapped over Landan Maassen's head. Maassen was able to recover the ball and executed a rugby punt that gave the Irish the ball at their own 45 with 1:26 until halftime.
Harms found Andrew O'Neill for a first down near the Hershey 40. Then Mark Mayfield got open on the left side and Harms muscled the ball to him for a touchdown and St. Pat's was on the board and down 13-7.
In the third quarter, the Panthers committed another bad snap on a punt. This time, Maassen kicked a loose ball on the ground that was recovered by St. Pat's at the Hershey 30.
The Irish got a couple of first downs before Harms scored from one yard out on a quarterback sneak. McClellen made the extra point and St. Pat's led 14-13 with just under four minutes left in the third quarter.
But the lead didn't last for long. Panther quarterback Logan Weir dropped back and hit Mason Amweg for a long bomb with 22 seconds remaining in the third.
"He's my first look because he's a great wide receiver," Weir said. "I saw him running. I put it spot on and he made a great play."
The ensuing two point conversion after the score was no good, but Hershey still led 19-14.
"That was a great play," Smith said. "Another two or three inches (toward the defender, McClellen) and we'd be having a different conversation. But Mason made a great play."
After the kickoff, St. Pat's was backed up in their own territory. But Harms got the Irish going when he scrambled to midfield from the 14. Then he found McClellen at the 36 for a first down.
But the drive stalled there and Hershey got the ball back at its 15.
On third and seven, Marshall carried the ball 46 yards to the St. Pat's 29. The Panthers got another third down conversion when Marshall carried the ball to the 14 on third and one.
Marshall scored on the following play to make it a two-possession game with just 2:18 to go.
Smith said that the momentum and energy carried his team on that drive.
"The guys stepped up," he said. "They just kept going and going. I don't think St. Pat's was tired at all. But we started to puff up and get excited."
Harms led the Irish into Panther territory in an attempt to get back within striking distance. But with about 30 seconds left, he was intercepted by Tanner Kosmicki and the celebration was underway in Hershey.
"St. Pat's had a truckload of momentum (in the third quarter)," Smith said. "But our kids just fought hard and took it from them."
Irish defensive coordinator Brent Aufdenkamp said that the Panthers just made plays in the second half.
"Give credit to Hershey," Aufdenkamp said. "They got the big play in the passing game and they closed it out with their last touchdown drive. That's what district champions do."
Hershey had a lot to prove on Thursday night. Even though both teams were undefeated going in, the Panthers were the underdog because St. Pat's had more success in previous season. The Irish are ranked No. 5 in Class C2 by the Omaha World-Herald, while Hershey wasn't even ranked.
So beating a perennial power like St. Pat's is the first step in putting the Panther program on the map. But Weir said that he and his teammates have to take it to the next level in the playoffs.
"This means everything but we're not done," the junior said. "We may be district champs. But there's more we have to do. I have no idea about (what's going to happen) in the playoffs. But we're going to work hard and put everything we've got on the field."