Falcons' finale isn't just football
There was more than just a football game last Friday night for Salisbury.
Trick or treat was also held in Salisbury Township that night. But there was one treat in particular that stood out among everything else, and it happened on the game's final play against Southern Lehigh.
The Falcons and Spartans joined together in making a Salisbury team manager's dream come true on the final play of the season. With under 10 seconds to play, Salisbury's Tyler Straussdiagnosed with Fragile X Syndromescored the final touchdown (an 80-yard run) as time expired in the Falcons' 42-34 defeat to the Spartans at Salisbury High School. It wasn't so much about the final tally for the two teams; instead, the neighboring schools, which are separated by only a few miles, showed that making one teenager's day was of the utmost importance.
"For students with special needs, it's more than just including them in classes and having them sit there," said Falcon head coach Andy Cerco. "It's more about making them a part of the school community. Tyler is the epitome of what inclusion in America should be. He is fully involved in the school community.
"Teddy [Denver] and Wes [Maron] really started thinking about that in the winter. He [Strauss] attends everything that we do as a football program. He's at all of our games, all of our practices and our weightlifting sessions. He's here in the summer. We're doing running, and he's here. He's here all the time."
Denver, who wore Maron's No. 82 to begin the game, exited with 40.5 seconds left in the first half with an apparent leg injury. When Strauss entered, he was wearing Denver's original No. 44, with Maron helping lead the way into the end zone.
As for the game itself, the Falcons (4-6) pulled to within one touchdown of the Spartans at halftime after running back Devin Irwin scored on back-to-back Falcon drives in the second quarter. Southern Lehigh's Travis Edmond hooked up with fullback Dylan Niedbralski with just 1:09 to play in the first half to make it a 21-14 Spartan lead going into the break.
Although Salisbury went toe-to-toe with Southern Lehigh, one of three teams that entered the final week with an 8-1 record atop the Colonial League, the Falcons understood that swapping touchdowns wasn't necessarily the recipe for success.
The Salisbury defense, which forced the Spartans into a turnover on downs on the first series, also recovered an Edmond fumble in the second quarter. Cerco and the Falcons knew it would take a similar outing in the second half to overtake one of the top teams in the league.
Instead, the Spartans (9-1) scored on their first three possessions of the second half to go in front 42-21 with 3:02 remaining. It took two plays for the Falcons to cut the deficit to 42-28 with 2:28 to play after a Tevon Weber 11-yard touchdown run, before Southern Lehigh ran out all but the final seconds of regulation on their next drive, setting up the special moment for Strauss.
"All year-round they do a great job," Cerco said of Southern Lehigh, "and that's what it takes to win football games in this league and Eastern Pennsylvania. They've established that over about a 10-year period. That's what we're looking to do."
Edmond, who had five total touchdowns (three passing and two rushing), put the Spartans in front 28-14 midway through the third quarter on a 74-yard touchdown toss to running back Brycen Holland. The Falcon offense struck not even three minutes later on Weber's second touchdown pass of the game, this one to Mason Donaldson from four yards out that made it a one-score game.
The Spartan offense, however, was too consistent and methodical down the stretch. Edmond capped off a 12-play drive with a four-yard touchdown that put Southern Lehigh ahead 35-21 on the first play of the fourth quarter. After a Falcon turnover on the ensuing drive, Edmond and the Spartans' rushing offense took up another heavy chunk of time. That 11-play drive resulted in a two-yard scoring plunge up the gut from running back Steffen Lindsay that all but ended any hope for the Falcons.
"If you look at us, it's a mirror image," Cerco said. "Our programs are exactly the same. Our players are starting to understand that, and it's only going to take off in the offseason, going to powerlifting meets, and getting that stuff done."
Edmond's first touchdown came on a 6-yard dive up the middle that got the Spartans on the board late in the first quarter. An intereception from Weber on the second play of the next drive gave the ball back to Southern Lehigh, and Edmond wasted little time in taking advantage of the turnovers. He hooked up with tight end Cody Heffelfinger from 22 yards out on the next play from scrimmage, pushing the Spartans' lead to 14-0 with five seconds left in the opening quarter.
Irwin, who tallied 165 yards of total offense, scored on a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the next possession to get Salisbury on the board. Weber (259 passing yards) then found Irwin on a 65-yard catch-and-run on the next series to tie the game at 14.
"For us, one game it's the run that is really hitting, and other games it's the pass that is really clicking," Cerco said. "They go hand-in-hand. If we can be successful in either pass or run, then that opens up the opposite. We try to be as balanced as much as we can, but we're going to go with what works."
Edmond passed for 211 yards and ran for 76 more in the Spartans' victory. Niedbralski paced Southern Lehigh's rushing attack with 94 on the ground.
The win gave the Spartans a three-way share of this year's league title along with Northwestern and Saucon Valley, which all finished with just one loss.
The Falcons may have ended their season with a loss, but the strides the program made over the last three years have been evident.
"A couple of points here or there, and we have three or four more wins," Cerco said. "It's an attribute to the players, their work ethic, and really the school community between our administration, [athletic director] Ms. [Monica] Deeb, high school principal Ms. [Heather] Morningstar and [district superintendent] Mr. [Michael] Roth supporting us."