LOWER BURRELL: A year ago, a win of this kind would have been almost unthinkable for Deer Lakes.
The Lancers went 2-8 and were shredded defensively on a weekly basis.
Maybe a new era has begun at Deer Lakes.
The Lancers now have a historic win to hang their helmets on.
Deer Lakes made a desperate defensive stand and then drove for the winning touchdown with less than three minutes left to upend undermanned Burrell, 20-18, in a Class-AA Allegheny Conference game at Buccaneer Stadium on Friday night.
The win was just the second for Deer Lakes in 14 meetings with Burrell.
The Lancers’ other victory against Burrell (7-0) came on Sept. 29, 1984.
When asked if beating Burrell was extra special, Deer Lakes senior quarterback Bob Smith said, “Any win is special to us. We’re taking it one game at a time and trying to make the playoffs.”
Deer Lakes has never qualified for the WPIAL playoffs but took a huge step toward that goal on Friday.
The Lancers improved to 2-1 in Allegheny Conference play and 2-3 overall.
They are riding a two-game winning streak after starting 0-3 under first-year head coach Denny Fedigan, who was the head coach at North Catholic the previous 14 seasons.
Burrell slipped to 1-2 in conference and 1-4 overall.
Deer Lakes trailed twice in the game, including late in the fourth quarter, but rallied for the win.
Burrell receiver Aaron Brown’s 85-yard touchdown reception gave the Bucs an 18-14 advantage with 8:29 to play.
But Deer Lakes did not surrender even though Burrell had a chance to seal the win with about two-and-a-half minutes remaining.
“To me, that was a big sign of character,” Fedigan said. “Words like character are tossed around quite a bit, but that was definitely a sign of character.
“We were trying to hold the lead, and they broke a big play. A lot of teams will fold after that. But these kids didn’t.”
Burrell had the ball and faced a fourth-and-one. Deer Lakes had spent its last timeout. However, the snap exchange was fumbled, Burrell lost a yard on the play, and Deer Lakes got a last chance with 2:29 on the clock.
Deer Lakes took over at the 50-yard line. The big play of the drive was a third-down completion to Chris McIntyre, who took the ball from the Burrell 44 to the 15.
McIntyre caught the ball over the middle of the defense and began racing down the right sideline. McIntyre appeared to have a clear shot at the end zone. Then he stumbled and fell.
“He would have definitely scored,” Fedigan said, with a smile. “That had me concerned.”
The Lancers eased Fedigan’s concern a few plays later. Junior running back Travis Ankeny ran 10 yards for a first down, then Smith spiked the ball to stop the clock.
On the next play, junior running back Mike Latronica burst up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown run with 1:17 to play. Latronica finished with five carries for 15 yards and two scores.
“Latronica’s a tough running back who is going to get those tough yards,” Fedigan said.
Burrell started the game without nine starters in the lineup and lost two during the game.
Five players who account for eight starting positions were serving suspensions. Burrell head coach Tom Henderson declined to say why the players were suspended.
Burrell juggled its lineup throughout the game. The Bucs used three quarterbacks and also had numerous players out of their usual positions. Sophomore Dylan Grazier, the starter for the last four games, began the game under center but suffered a hand injury in the first half.
Grazier was taken to a hospital and his status was uncertain immediately after the game, Henderson said.
After Grazier was knocked out of the contest, the Bucs called upon Zak Jenniches, who began the season as the starting quarterback, and Garyn Ehrlich.
“I’ve been here since 1985, and this is greatest effort any Burrell team has put on,” Henderson said.
“We were short at points out there between nine and 11 starters. That’s not an excuse. But the effort of the kids was unbelievable. We asked kids to play positions they haven’t played in over a month.
“This is the craziest game I’ve ever dealt with from a coaching standpoint. Calling plays was an adventure.”
Deer Lakes senior running back Matt Jones opened the scoring with an 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. Jones had numerous long kick returns throughout the game. However, he fumbled two times early in the game.
He ended up with just three carries for no gain, although he was the main tailback for the first four games. Fedigan said he expects Jones to return to his usual workhorse role next week.
Burrell dominated the first half offensively.
But Deer Lakes took advantage of its opportunities. Deer Lakes was held to just one first down in the first half. However, the lone first down set up Deer Lakes’ second touchdown.