LOWER POTTSGROVE — From the time preseason practice kicked off back in August, strong defense was a veritable badge of honor for the Pottsgrove football team.
Through 11 games this fall, a dogged defensive effort was pretty much a consistent calling card for the Falcons, as they brought home their second straight Pioneer Athletic Conference crown.
And with the outcome of Friday night's District 1-AAA semifinal against Academy Park hanging in the balance, Pottsgrove coach Rick Pennypacker had to like the chances of his defense as the Knights faced a fourth-and-12 from the Falcons' 22 with a little more than six minutes remaining.
It's a situation the Pottsgrove ' D' had locked things down time and time again throughout its unbeaten campaign.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, Academy Park's terrific tandem of quarterback Brian Ingram and running back Jerry Lanier wrote a different script this time.
Ingram hit Lanier for a 22-yard scoring strike off a wheel route for the go-ahead touchdown as No. 4 seed Academy Park came away with a thrilling — and stunning — 27-26 victory.
Lanier, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior, ran for a game-high 155 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries — eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark for the year — and Ingram rushed for 126 yards and made all four of his completions count to help the Knights (9-2) advance to next week's district final against No. 2 seed Glen Mills, a 34-13 victor over Henderson.
The Falcons, who got two interceptions from Mike Fowler, two touchdowns from Sene Polamalu and 82 rushing yards from Marquis Barefield, finished 11-1 and fell in the district semis for the second straight year.
"We got our first goal (the PAC-10 title),' Adams said. "But man, we had bigger dreams and bigger aspirations than that. I guess you just have to give them credit. They came out and drove on us.'
Academy Park opened a 14-0 lead thanks to a 40-yard TD run by Ingram with 4:29 left in the first quarter and an 8-yard scoring jaunt by Lanier with 7:59 remaining in the second quarter.
Pottsgrove responded with a 60-yard march highlighted by a 27-yard pass from quarterback Riley Michaels to Polamalu that culminated in Polamalu's 2-yard run that got the Falcons within 14-6 at intermission.
The Falcons appeared to seize momentum in the third quarter thanks to a couple of big plays.
First, Barefield took a swing pass from Michaels in the left flat and took it 64 yards to the house. Then, Orrin Toomer ripped off a 29-yard TD run off left tackle to give Pottsgrove its first lead at 20-14 with 2:21 left in the third.
"When they came back and took the lead, the question for us was, how are we going to respond?' Academy Park coach Jason Vosheski said.
It didn't take long for the Knights to provide an answer, as Lanier broke off a 47-yard run to the Pottsgrove 15. Three plays later, on third-and-8, Jamar Dembry cradled Ingram's tipped pass for a 13-yard TD grab to put Academy Park back up at 21-20 with nine seconds left in the third.
"We saw a team that was faster than we were, and it cost us on the edge,' Pennypacker said. "We did what we wanted to do with Lanier inside, but he bounced outside a couple times and made some big plays.'
Barefield made a big play of his own, a 34-yard run that set up a 16-yard scoring run by Polalmalu four plays into the fourth, and suddenly Pottsgrove was back on top 26-21.
Though the Falcons defense had been as lights-out as Mariano Rivera most of the year, they simply couldn't nail this one down.
Academy Park took over at its own 20 after a touchback by Jon Klinger, and the Knights put together a memorable 13-play march to break the backs (and hearts) of the Falcons.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from their own 34, the Knights got an 11-yard run from Ingram, who later hooked up with Dembry for a 16-yard gain and churned out a 10-yard gain to get the ball in the red zone.
A holding penalty, followed by a no gain, incomplete pass and 1-yard gain by Ingram (tackled by Anthony Pond and Polamalu) left the Knights looking at a fourth-and-14.
Vosheski called time out, and according to him Ingram called the game-turning play.
"We ran it once earlier in the year, and it failed miserably,' Vosheski recalled.
This time, though, it worked like a charm, as Ingram started to roll out to his left before pivoting and heaving it high to the left side of the end zone, where Lanier grabbed it a split second before Fowler arrived.
"It was just a blown coverage,' Adams said, shaking his head. "We were in Cover 3, and they just got us.'
The Knights sealed the deal with a four-and-out — with Brian Stevens intercepting Michaels' fourth-down pass — and ran out the final 4:33.
"When you get that momentum, the key is to keep it,' Michaels said. "When they made those big plays, it definitely shut our momentum down real quick.'
And when the reality and finality eventually set in, it hit the Falcons' seniors hard as they tried to come to grips with their final game.
Long after the final whistle had sounded and most folks had left the stadium, Adams, Jalen Mayes, Barefield, Jeremy Cuadrado, Max Wickward, Nico Demetrio, Michaels, Tommy Sephakis, Pond, Polamalu and Tyrone Parker formed an 11-player line, holding hands and walking the length of the field.
"This group's very special to me,' Pennypacker said. "I had a lot of great memories with them.'
"It was a great group of seniors,' said Adams. "I love all my classmates, and hopefully the underclassmen take our work ethic and use it to our advantage and do better than us next year.'
"We just made a promise to each other, that every play we're going to put every last drop into the field,' Michaels said. "They'll never be a group of people in my life, and I'm pretty sure their lives, who will be as tight as we were. We've been through so much, and those memories will never leave us.'
Academy Park outgained Pottsgrove 352-276. ... Michaels finished 3-for-6 for 110 yards, while Ingram was 4-for-9 for 67 yards (with all four completions coming in the second half. ... Polamalu ran for 54 yards. ... Pottsgrove is 57-9 over the past five seasons.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.
Academy Park 27
Academy Park 8 6 7 6 — 27
Pottsgrove 0 6 14 6 — 26
AP-Ingram 40 run (Dembry pass from Ingram)
AP-Lanier 8 run (pass failed)
PG-Polamalu 2 run (kick failed)
PG-Barefield 64 pass from Michaels (pass failed)
PG-Toomer 23 run (Toomer run)
AP-Dembry 13 pass from Ingram (Doe kick)
PG-Polamalu 16 run (run failed)
AP-Lanier 22 pass from Ingram (pass failed)
First Downs 16 11
Rushing yards 285 178
Passing yards 67 110
Total yards 352 278
Passes C-A-I 4-9-2 3-6-1
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-1
Penalties-Yards 3-23 2-13
Punts-Avg. 3-27.7 3-33.0
Academy Park: Lanier 33-155, 1 TD; Ingram 13-126, 1 TD, Jackson 1-4.
Pottsgrove: Barfield 14-82, Polamalu 10-54, 2 TDs, Toomer 2-32, Michaels 6-10.
Academy Park: Ingram 4-9-67, 2 TDs, 2 INTs.
Pottsgrove: Michaels 3-6-110, 1 TD, 1 INT.
Academy Park: Dembry 3-45, 1 TD, Lanier 1-22, 1 TD.
Pottsgrove: Fowler 2-19, Barefield 1-64, 1 TD, Polamalu 1-27.
Interceptions: Academy Park-Stevens; Pottsgrove-Fowler 2.