TREDYFFRIN — One by one, Strath Haven's offensive weapons had to be helped off the field Friday night.
That left the Panthers, in a hostile environment and trying to turn the tide of a season going south, grasping at straws. And Conestoga's defense was more than equal to Plan B.
With running back Alex Bratsis on the sideline, Conestoga linebacker Eddie Jean was the one to strike the death knell, picking off a Bryan Mizell pass late in the third quarter to ice a 35-14 win by the Pioneers at Teamer Field.
It was only Mizell's second pass attempt of the night, but with the Panthers (2-3, 1-3 Central) missing halfback Bratsis after a second-quarter collision and trying to erase a pair of two-touchdown, first-half deficits, the playbook had to open.
They got to within a score on two occasions thanks to the feet of Anthony Myers, who ran for 122 yards on 19 carries and scored twice, including a 99-yard kickoff return.
But three plays after Jean's interception return, Myers had to be helped off after a nine-yard carry with an ankle injury that required a trip to the hospital, and the Panthers' chances of a comeback seemed to limp off with him.
"It's real tough to see that three of your best offensive players are out, and then we have to bring our back-up guys in,' Mizell said. "But our backups did phenomenal with stepping up to the plate. That was some of the first offense they've seen at a varsity level and I think they did great. I thought we played our hearts out tonight, and they just played a little bit harder.'
Given the opening, the Pioneers (4-1, 3-1) knew what to do, namely putting the ball in the gut of running back Parke Schweiter. They did so 36 times, resulting in 213 tough-earned yards between the tackles, including 55 on the drive that followed the punt after Myers' injury.
Thought it was finished by Eric Cook's 7-yard scamper to paydirt, Schweiter did the heavy lifting on a drive that ate up 4:25 on the clock and set the final, insurmountable margin.
"We were running up the middle a lot, a lot of inside plays,' Schweiter said. "My lineman just really dominated the line tonight and got me up the field. It puts me in a tough position running up the middle, but my linemen make it happen, and that's a big part of our offense. ... We told our line that they had to dominate, and they did.'
Schweiter's dirty work included 57 yards churned out on the opening drive with him barreling through the line for the final yard less than five minutes into the game to open the scoring.
He also opened space for his teammates like Cook, who finished with six carries for 54 yards, all after halftime once the Haven defense was nice and worn down. Quarterback Tim Miller only had to take to the air 10 times, but two resulted in touchdowns, strikes of 28 and 5 to Stephen Cox and Martin Dorsey, respectively, to stake Conestoga to a 21-14 lead at the half.
"It just gives us a variety of different plays to run,' Schweiter said.' If we've got good field position and we've got good yards and we're pushing toward the goal line, the limits are endless and we have a whole variety of plays to run.'
The need to constantly play from behind eventually caught up to the Panthers, who got on the board early in the second quarter when Myers broke free for 35 yards to the two and finished the drive a play later.
He was also put Haven in prime position to peg back Dorsey's touchdown catch, taking the ball from within a whisker of the goal line on the ensuing kickoff straight up the gut for the score.
But the Panthers, despite forcing punts from Conestoga on the first two series of the second half, couldn't seem to close the gap. Facing at second-and-9 at their 31 on their second series of the second half, lineman Scott Hirshman burst through the line and hit Mizell as he released a pass into the flat. Jean jumped the route, grabbed the wounded duck of a pass and rumbled untouched 33 yards for the score that pretty much sealed things.
"I saw the tight end run across the middle so it was a pass,' said Jean, who also served as Schweiter's fullback. "I kind of just drifted over and I saw the D-line put on pressure. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have gotten that because I was just being in the right position. And it was a great play by the defensive line forcing a bad throw.'
There were some glimmers of hope, though, for the Panthers, who also saw lineman Anthony Semeraro injured but able to return in the second half. Mizell scrambled twice in the second half for 17 yards, and junior halfback Nick Milone carried four times for 20 yards in his most significant varsity action of the season.
For the likes of Milone and others, the injuries and struggles of the season so far are merely an opportunity for change, the seeds of which were evident Friday.
"We just have to step up when someone like Anthony goes down,' Milone said. "And I think I can be that guy to step up and make some plays and help my team do the best I can. ... If we all put our best foot forward, I think we can come out and be one of those better teams.'
"I know we all fought till the last second,' Mizell said. "There was no giving up, all of us were picking each other up and trying to get it back, but we came up a little short.'