HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Schuylkill players excel in East-West Game

MECHANICSBURG — Williams Valley's Alex Achenbach was listed as a defensive safety on the East team's pre-game roster.

Yet head coach Pat Mason knew what the Viking senior could do when he gets his hands on a football.

"He knows the type of player I am on offense. I figured he'd give me a chance to run the ball," Achenbach said of the Nativity coach after the East fell 27-24 to the West in Sunday's Pennsylvania State Football Coaches Association Small-School All-Star Classic at Cumberland Valley High School's Chapman Field.

After rushing just two times for 16 yards in the first half, Achenbach was part of an East comeback that nearly produced a victory.

Instead, the West scored the decisive touchdown with just 5 seconds remaining on a 1-yard throw from Loyalsock quarterback Dylan Gee to Hanover wideout Joey Wilkinson.

By then, Achenbach and Northwestern Lehigh's Dalton Clymer had become a big part of the East's game plan. The two combined for 89 yards rushing, mostly on counter plays, in the second half.

"I conditioned a lot, even here in the offseason," Achenbach, whose 64 yards rushing topped the East, said. "I'm good to take 10 straight carries, just like in season. I thought we could have leaned on that the entire time."

But after the West scored and then kicked off out of bounds, giving the East the ball at its 40-yard line, Palmerton quarterback Matt Machalik's long pass downfield fell incomplete to end a game that had a decided Schuylkill League flavor.

After all, Pine Grove's Lauren Wessner sang the national anthem, and the game was officiated by a Schuylkill League crew led by referee Joe Gerchak. Mason was joined on his East coaching staff by two other Schuylkill League head coaches, Tamaqua's Sam Bonner and Lehighton's Tom McCarroll.

"I'll tell you what, it was probably the most challenging thing I've ever done," Mason said of directing the East squad. "You know, you only get two days of practice trying to get everything in. It's mass confusion in and out, but I think you saw your playmakers make plays."

Machalik earned his second straight all-star game award. The Colonial Most Valuable Player against Schuylkill in an all-star game two weeks earlier at North Schuylkill, Machalik was named the East MVP after amassing 186 yards of offense.

But the playmakers also included North Schuylkill's Joey Flail, whose three pass catches featured a nifty one-handed grab. There was Marian's Jesse Rodino, flawless with his long snaps, and Pine Grove's Evan Karenda, who averaged 40 yards on three first-half punts.

"The more you practice, the more confidence in yourself that you feel," Karenda, who plans to kick for Lebanon Valley College, said. "Once you get the first one out of the way, the rest of them come easier."

Despite Karenda's effort, the West used big plays to take a 21-7 lead. Helped by Flail's two receptions for 19 yards, the East scored with 6 seconds left in the first half to trim the margin to seven, 21-14.

The next two East drives fell short, including a leap toward the end zone by Machalik on fourth down that was blunted by West tacklers inside the 1-yard line.

That set up an East safety on the next play when Southmoreland's Da'sjon Craggette was tackled in the end zone, cutting the West's lead to 21-16.

The East then drove five plays after the West's kickoff from the 20 to score as Steelton-Highspire's Durrell Ceasar fought off a defender to grab a 31-yard touchdown throw from Machalik with 4:44 remaining. Machalik's two-point toss to Steelton-Highspire's Kameron Chisholm hiked the East's lead to 24-21.

It wasn't enough. Led by Craggette, who had 128 yards rushing, the West drove to fourth down at the East 1 with 11 seconds left. After a time out, Gee took a three-step drop after the snap and looked left.

"They ran that pick route. When you've got to run man coverage (by game rules), that's the right call," Mason said. "It was tough for us to cover that."

Wilkinson's grab just before two East defenders blanketed him was enough to give the Nighthawk receiver the West MVP award.

Despite the loss, the Schuylkill League's players expressed gratitude for the chance to play with the talent displayed in Sunday's matchup.

"We're coming together on such short notice," Schuylkill Haven and East quarterback Augustus Warke said. "It a good experience to learn who you are as a person and how you interact with others."

Warke will remember that every time he sees his jersey, which all of Sunday's players may keep.

"It's going to go up on my college dorm wall," Warke, who will wrestle for East Stroudsburg University, said.

Notes: The Schuylkill League players included Marian's James Rodino Jr., North Schuylkill's Collin McGee and Pine Grove's Hunter McConnell. ... The game was the first of a doubleheader. The Big-School All-Star Classic followed and its East coaches included former Pottsville head Tom McGeoy. The East beat the West 15-14.