By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
Danville’s offense curiously spent three quarters Friday weaning itself off fullback Sam Dressler, only to binge on the 1,000-yard runner’s talent when it mattered most. Dressler gained all 85 yards on the Ironmen’s game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of the District 4 Class AA semifinal against Athens.
Shayne Riley’s second point-after kick of the night — coupled with Matt Shipe’s block of a Wildcats PAT a period earlier — lifted top-seeded Danville to a 14-13 win and its second district title game berth in three seasons.
“We were just facing adversity — that’s what happens in high school football,” said Dressler. “We stuck together as a team, as a family, and we knew what we needed to do and we got it done when it counted.”
The Ironmen’s typically potent offense scored an early touchdown and then flat-lined, gaining few yards and fewer first downs, with no evidence of a possible turnaround. Then, as though someone on the home sideline threw a switch, they marched almost the length of the field with their season on the line.
It turns out Dressler, who had just two second-half carries to that point, had his hand on the lever.
“We huddled up before the fourth quarter and Sammy said, ‘Listen! We are not losing this game! Get on your blocks, make some room for me, and we’re going to go!’ And there it was,” Danville coach Jim Keiser said. “I thought at some point in the game we would put that drive together, but not an 85-yarder. Not the way we were moving the ball.”
Danville gained 70 yards on a first-quarter scoring drive capped by Cale Rice’s 39-yard sweep. However, the Ironmen managed just one yard in the second quarter (thanks in large part to an errant shotgun snap), and picked up just 29 in the third despite holding the ball for 6:16.
Danville had four third-quarter possessions and Dressler ran the ball only twice, which followed the declining trend of six carries in the first period and four in the second.
“We looked on film and teams were hitting them on the outside; they weren’t getting anything in the middle,” said Keiser. “So we were trying to get Cale’s speed out there, and it worked early. All of a sudden … we’re getting hit in the backfield. We tried running some belly (plays) for Sam, and we just couldn’t get off the ball.”
Dressler took his first carry of the fourth quarter off left tackle for 10 yards. He ran the next play for 5. The next call was a belly to the right side that Dressler bounced to the sideline for 49. He had totaled 49 through three quarters.
Three plays later, Dressler ran another play off tackle left for a 15-yard touchdown. His rushing yardage had ballooned to 134 yards, while the team’s total went from 96 to 181 yards in a little more than 2 minutes of game time.
“I don’t really know why,” said Dressler, who finished with 142 yards. “The line just did a great job there, Coach decided to give me the ball, and we got a score there. That’s all that matters.”
Athens (9-3), the No. 4 seed, played extremely aggressive defense. The Wildcats intercepted Danville on its first possession, and forced fumbles on the two series following Rice’s touchdown. The second fumble gave them a short field, and 1,500-yard rusher Tyler Birdsall ran the final 3 yards of the 19-yard drive to tie the score at 7.
“When they scored it was like, OK, this is gonna be a ballgame,” said Rice. “We knew they had a good defense, though. You do what you can on offense, but they win plays, too, sometimes. You’ve just got to win the majority of them.”
Rice, who had two interceptions, returned the second-half kickoff 38 yards to midfield but Danville’s drive stalled at the Athens 35.
Birdsall, who was limited to 24 yard on 14 first-half carries, found some success on the right side and ran six times for 51 yards on a 65-yard scoring drive. The Wildcats were helped by a pass interference call that negated a Rice interception in the end zone.
The Ironmen responded with consecutive three-and-outs. They finished the game without a completed pass.
“(Athens) played a helluva football game … but, honestly, I don’t know where our kids’ heads were,” said Keiser. “They weren’t here, especially on the offensive line.”
“These guys better wake up because next week they’re going to get really smacked in the mouth.”
The Ironmen (10-2) will host Mount Carmel (8-4) in the district championship game Friday.