Panthers battle hard, lose thrilling debut

Greg Ceilley
of The Review staff

DEREK NOVOTNY, Plymouth running back, breaks a tackle attempt by a New Berlin Eisenhower defender in Friday’s football opener. – Photo by Tyler Luedtke DEREK NOVOTNY, Plymouth running back, breaks a tackle attempt by a New Berlin Eisenhower defender in Friday’s football opener. – Photo by Tyler Luedtke PLYMOUTH – The Plymouth Panthers showed a lot of heart and grit in rallying twice from 21-point deficits before falling short, 28-27, to New Berlin Eisenhower in a thrilling football game Friday night at Finke Field.

The nonconference game was the season opener for both teams.

Leading 28-21, the Lions appeared to have the win sealed but Josh Koll blocked a punt which gave PHS the ball at the NBE 13 with only 7.1 seconds left. On the next play quarterback Cade Knaus zipped the ball over the middle to wide receiver Mason Guell for a 13-yard touchdown with just 3.0 seconds left to make it 28-27.

PHS head coach Dan Knaus decided to go for a two-point conversion and the win instead of forcing overtime because the Panthers had the momentum and had some players sidelined with leg cramps sustained during the game. Knaus tried to hit fullback Jack Nytes at the right side of the end zone but the pass fell incomplete.

PHS attempted an onside kick but it was recovered by the Lions’ Joe Lang which ended the Panby thers’ hopes.

After running back Jake Belongia scored his third TD of the first half – this one on a 15-yard pass from quarterback Bryce Miller – the Lions had a 21-0 lead with 41 seconds left until halftime.

The Panthers needed only three plays to answer. After a 33- yard pass from Knaus to wideout Mackade Mella to the NBE 34, PHS called a timeout with only 4.2 seconds left. On the next play Knaus lofted a 34-yard TD pass to 6-foot-7 wide receiver Brandon Keller who made a leaping grab as time expired. The PHS gained much-needed momentum going into halftime, trailing 21-7.

The Lions regained the momentum when Belongia returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a score which made it 28-7.

Undaunted, the Panthers took the ensuing kickoff and marched 69 yards, climaxed by a 17-yard TD pass from Knaus to Keller which cut NBE’s lead to 28-14 in the third quarter. Running back Derek Novotny’s 30-yard burst helped spark the drive.

On their next possession, Miller was picked off by defensive back Aiden Reilly at the NBE 45 and returned to the 14. On second down, Novotny scored on a 5-yard run and PHS was down 28-21 with 6:12 left in the third period.

PHS drove 76 yards, keyed by Knaus’s 61 yards passing, to the NBE 13 on its next possession but the Lions’ defense held on downs with 7:42 remaining in the game.

PHS head coach Dan Knaus was very encouraged with his team’s performance, especially in the second half.

“At halftime, I challenged them [players] and told them we have to fight. They came out in the second half and fought and fought. I’m proud of our kids,” said the coach.

“I liked our balance on offense. For his first start I thought Cade did a nice job controlling the offense and doing some really nice things. Derek and Josh ran hard.

“Our offensive line and the defense stepped up in the second half and did a good job. Our receivers caught the ball well,” the coach said.

“It was a really good comeback. It showed we have some heart,” said Keller.

“I thought we played really well. I liked the call going for two. We had all of the momentum,” said Cade Knaus.

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