A large, blue exercise ball flew clear across the practice field outside Lebanon High School Wednesday and crashed with its intended target. It crashed again and again.
The Cedars had just opened their practice with special teams work and the throwing of the hollow, elastic ball was tied to a punt return drill, wherein the returner must absorb the ball's impact while simultaneously hauling in a punted pigskin. The point of the exercise is to keep focus amid a severe distraction, and whether Lebanon players and coaches knew it or not, the drill had never been more important or symbolic to their team than now.
For the biggest distraction currently posed to the Cedars lies in the standings, where both they and their Friday-night hosts, the Elco Raiders, sit at 0-2. The goal for both squads will first and foremost be to ignore that noise come kickoff and any piece that's so far come with it. Simply let go of the bad plays, past mistakes and any other residue of negativity.
Whoever accomplishes that best in the program's annual showdown will have righted a ship that set sail Week 1 following a hopeful course to the postseason. Whoever fails, don't look out below.
In the meantime, it's full speed ahead to that first victory for both Raiders and Cedars alike.
"It wouldn't matter if we were playing the state champion or a team with a record equal to us," Lebanon coach Gerry Yonchiuk said. "We just have to go and not be on a roller coaster. We've played either very good or very bad. Now we need to put four quarters together."
Elco put forth its best football of the season in Week 2 despite the absence of numerous starters due to off-field issues. The defeat, a 30-22 decision at the hands of a quality Palmyra squad, didn't register with the normal sour taste of the loss. In fact, it had Raiders coach Bob Miller exuding quite the opposite.
"We had three turnovers and no one batted an eye. We kept battling back," Miller said. "I've never been more proud of a team, even in some of the wins we've had. Two weeks in a row now we've been without starters for off-field character issues.
"If we don't honor our commitment to being good, quality, character men, we're not going to win. And we haven't. Now it's on us."
Elco will be back at full strength against the Cedars, who they themselves will also be returning key pieces that didn't see the field for all four quarters of last week's 51-27 loss to Northern Lebanon. In the eyes of Yonchiuk, and many Raider onlookers for that matter, Elco's fate starts with fourth-year quarterback Jeff Martin. The impressive frame is the same, but Martin's game, Yonchiuk says, is slightly different.
"He's a real physical, strong guy with a cannon arm. And they're running him more," Yonchiuk said. "I think Jeff is a lot more aggressive. But they've got balance. They played real well last week."
There's also no forgetting about the Raiders' stable of skill position players, including the powerful Tyler Horst. Horst's running counterpart this Friday will be Lebanon's Malik Hunter, who has knocked twice on the door of a 100-yard rushing game, only to be sidetracked by a sizable early deficit. If all goes to the Cedars' plans, not only will Hunter surpass triple digits on the ground, but he'll continue to make impact plays on defense, as well.
"Malik is a big weapon. He's a touch away from going (to the end zone) every time," Yonchiuk said. "He's so much stronger this year, and he's our best defensive player."
Now armed with an offensive line full of varsity experience and a starting defensive tackle that isn't in his first year of football, two luxuries he didn't have last week, Miller figures to attack the Cedars much the way their previous foes did: in the trenches. Cedar Crest's Justise Belleman sped to a 100-yard game in the opener, and Northern Lebanon racked up 320 yards rushing last week.
Per Miller, another key will undoubtedly be tackling, which must be sound to counteract Lebanon's undisputed edge in the speed department.
"They're always very fast," Miller said. "They've got some size, too, so we're going to have to be very disciplined."
Win or lose, Friday night's game should be a success with respect to raising awareness for autism. For the sixth straight season, the programs have joined together to raise money for needy families with special circumstances, a cause born in 2009 via the efforts of Yonchiuk and then Elco head coach Mark Evans.
MANHEIM CENTRAL AT CEDAR CREST>> The Falcons return home for the first time since their season-opening win in the Cedar Bowl, now at 1-1 after a road loss to a bruising Lower Dauphin team. This week's test doesn't get much easier, though, with the Barons rolling in after a tough 10-3 home loss to Hempfield. Cedar Crest's lines will have to continue to carry the squad, as they did during its win over Lebanon two weeks ago.
For last season, Manheim Central blasted the Falcons, 42-3, and their passing game has yet to fully blossom under first-year signal caller Stevie Roda. However, a home win over the Barons, long a league power, would be a huge statement in year No. 2 of the Rob Wildasin era. Expect any upset recipe to feature an early score, followed by heavy doses of junior Justise Belleman and seniors Evan Horn and Raymie Ferreira.
NORTHERN LEBANON AT HAMBURG>> The Vikings (2-0), one of three remaining undefeated county teams, travel to Hamburg for their second straight road contest, after last Friday's beatdown of the Cedars. Junior transfer Dylan Weaver spearheaded Northern Lebanon's rout with a score in each phases and will be ready to go for an encore performance. Opposing county coaches expect the Vikings to move to 3-0 after their road trip, and the continued development of quarterback Isaac Wengert would go a long way to ensuring that victory.
SCHUYLKILL VALLEY AT ANNVILLE-CLEONA>> Senior quarterback Adam Fox continues to put the Little Dutchmen on his back and shows no signs of slowing down in his final campaign. Schuylkill Valley will be looking after its first win of the season thanks to a tough 0-2 start. The Panthers won't have to look far, though, for inspiration, as last year's meeting ended in a 26-13 Schuylkill Valley triumph. Annville-Cleona faithful can only hope the combination of a new coach and offense led by the familiar Fox leads to a different result.
PALMYRA AT DONEGAL>> It's back to the road for the Cougars (2-0), who have arguably been the best team in the county thus far. Palmyra was busy closing out Elco the last time we saw them, holding on against a second-half Raiders comeback before a 30-22 finish.
This week, the Cougars will have hold on tight to their defensive assignments working against the Indians' Wing-T attack. While Donegal has only posted 13 points in each of its previous games, one or two big plays could surpass that Friday. And Palmyra, led by dynamo Carl Reigle, knows all about the importance of a timely big play.