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Written by: PFN Staff on Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
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Patriots hoist the trophy
Special Contributor: Kyle Wagner
Rich Lichtel would go on to have a long and illustrious career as Mechanicsburg Head Football Coach. He was a prominent figure in Central Pa’s coaching landscape. Citing his name alone can create a ton of emotions for former players. He made an impact on everyone he came in contact with. He didn’t take himself too seriously but he took the game he coached very seriously. In the fall of 1981, Rich Lichtel was a rookie Head Coach. His legacy was yet to be written.
Jim Page was a 2nd year coach at Red Land High School. He inherited a moribund Red Land football program and infused it with an energy and commitment those in Lewisberry hadn’t yet seen. Page had secured a program best 7-3 record in 1980 and was set on exceeding that mark in 1981. Jim Page would coach Red Land until 1993 and in doing so would etch his own name in the Red Land annals of very successful coaches. But, in 1981, his legacy was yet to be written.
And so it was on November 7, 1981 rookie head coach Rich Lichtel brought his Mechanicsburg Wildcats to West Shore Stadium to challenge 2nd year head coach Jim Page and the Patriots of Red Land. The game would not soon be forgotten. “I would be happy to relive our greatest defeat. It still hurts after 40 years.” – Ryan Priest (Mechanicsburg Tailback 1981)
Red Land defeated Mechanicsburg that night 27-25. Talking to everyone that experienced that game stirs emotions. Those that wore the red,white and blue discuss the game as only the victors can do. The pride of a championship season earned frames each and every story. Those that wore the maroon and black discuss the game through the regret of lost opportunity. Here is the story of an epic clash that took place on a Saturday night in Camp Hill, Pa.
“What started as a preseason whisper will culminate in a roar Saturday night at West Shore Stadium where perennial also-rans Red Land and Mechanicsburg square off in a heavyweight slugfest which more than likely serves as the Capital Area Conference championship match.”- Fred Sprunk (Patriot News writer)
Red Land entered the game with an 8-0-1 mark. The only blemish was a 7-7 tie to Cumberland Valley. Mechanicsburg entered the game with an 8-1-0 mark. Their only blemish was an opening season loss to the Carlisle Thundering Herd 14-8.
In hindsight, it seemed the Wildcats would have been favored in the contest. A prediction wasn’t offered by the Patriot News but pre-game quotes from players and coaches would lead one to believe that Mechanicsburg might have been targeted as the favorite. And, considering that Mechanicsburg tailback Ryan Priest was later named first team all state, it seems a safe assumption.
Mechanicsburg would enter the game featuring Ryan Priest extensively. “Our strength is more off tackle with Priest.” – Rich Lichtel (Pre-game quote from Harrisburg Patriot News) “He was an animal. A one man wrecking crew.” – Walt Marriott (Red Land class of ’82)
Saddled with the task of stopping Priest was Coach John Rados’ defense. In chatting with John for this piece he admitted he was obviously nervous about Ryan Priest’s big play capability but he thought if they had a bend but don’t break philosophy, eventually things might break their way. The notables tasked with containing Priest were Gary Sheaffer,(Sr) Chris Mummert (Sr), Mike McDermott (Jr), Bill Ackley(Jr) and John Cook (Jr). Page sized up just how important their role was prior to the game.
“Defense will be the key to the whole game….especially for us. M’burg is certainly more explosive and they have the best running back in the area.” – Jim Page
The previous quote might be a bit misleading 40 years later. Jim Page was saying the right things to the media but other references from Page exuded much more confidence in the Patriots chances. I played for Coach Jim Page and when he knew something you didn’t he had a hard time keeping the secret. Patriot News writer Fred Sprunk wrote the following “It should be something” BEAMED PAGE. In my mind, I want to believe Jim Page knew he possessed the counter to Mechanicsburg’s quick play explosive offense. I want to believe that Page knew things were gelling at just the right time and a system would prevail over any one player.
“I felt the last two weeks our offense is suddenly improving. Things we hoped to see earlier in the year are finally showing up.” – Jim Page (Pre-game quote from Harrisburg Patriot News)
The Patriots wouldn’t feature one back. The Patriots would feature multiple threats in the form of a triple option attack. Years later, the names Brandt Cook, Walt Marriott and Dave Marshall regale us with memories of our first championship team. But, Coach Jim Page’s triple option was Red Land’s tour de force. It was Red Land’s counter punch to Mechanicsburg’s upper cut. Mechanicsburg would give the ball to Ryan Priest. Red Land would run the triple option.
“Brandt was a master field general. We ran that triple option and he was a magician at it. We practiced it so much. Coach Page was a little like Woody Hayes back then. That’s all we ran.” – Dave Marshall (Red Land class of ’83)
“Number one, we got a new coaching staff in my Junior year. And we drilled that triple option all the time. We had those fire hoses with line splits painted on the field. The whole entire team could run the triple option in our sleep.” – Brandt Cook (Red Land class of ’82)
“Jim got a little more progressive with the offense over time but in those early years it was all triple option.” – John Rados (Red Land Defensive Coordinator ’81)
Listen to a football coach in 2021 talk and they’ll diagnose three primary points of emphasis. We must win the turnover battle. We must win the explosive play percentage. We must win field position. This is what the data analytics revolution has deduced. If you want to win you can’t turn the ball over, you can’t rely on long, sustained drives and you must shrink the field. In 1981, Jim Page and Rich Lichtel didn’t have Hudl films to sort through and data to process. They coached on intuition and feel. In 1981, ball control was still accepted as sound strategy. That’s exactly what Jim Page intended to do.
Brandt Cook attempted 2 passes on the evening. The first one resulted in a Mechanicsburg interception. The second one did not. Reading through the quotes and the story lines reveals a heavy dose of Marriott (27 carries for 139 yards) and Marshall (23 carries for 99 yards) with the occasional Cook keeper (9 carries for 39 yards). It highlights an offensive line that allowed Walt Marriott and Dave Marshall to execute Page’s war of attrition. It highlights Ryan Priest’s game high 177 yards on the ground. For all intents and purposes Jim Page and Rich Lichtel were both doing what they intended to do. Lichtel’s prize tailback was hitting pay dirt on enough of his carries to buoy Mechanicsburg’s hopes. Page’s triple option was wearing down the Mechanicsburg front. Marriott and Marshall were standing toe to toe with Priest.
With the clock reading less than 4 minutes to play in the game and holding the slimmest of leads (20-19) the Patriots faced a 3rd and 10. The ball rested on the Patriots 41 yard line. A coach weened on a triple option attack could have played it safe and kicked the ball away on a potential 4th down call. John Rados’ defense had in fact forced three consecutive punts. Gary Sheaffer and the boys were holding up admirably in the face of Lichtel’s power running attack.
“Absolutely I remember that play. It was the back breaker. I actually asked Coach Lichtel if I could go into the game on defense to help stop the run. We were in a goal line defense at mid field and they hit that pass. I can’t believe I didn’t catch him.” – Ryan Priest Him was Keir Bordner; a seldom targeted flanker/tight end that provided more run blocking than explosive plays in Page’s triple option. That pass was Brandt Cook’s second of the night. Whether Page’s play call was seen as a calculated risk or simply taking what the defense was giving him is irrelevant. What was relevant was Jim Page called a pass play on his own 41 yard line with the lead.
“I do remember talking to Jim at that point in the game. I think we all thought the tight end dump pass might be there. Keir was to arc release and get up on the safety. They were selling out to stop the run.” – John Rados
The game wasn’t over. There was still 3 minutes and 31 seconds on the clock. But, most of the reported 10,000 in attendance must have been euphoric. Would the Patriots finally have their 1st championship season?
Mechanicsburg High School has a long list of exceptional athletes. Maybe at the very top of this prestigious list sits the name Shawn Abner. Shawn was the San Diego Padres first selection in the 1984 Amateur baseball draft. Shawn was most definitely a talented baseball player. He was also a Mechanicsburg quarterback in 1981. Trotting onto the field with Ryan Priest was Abner. This game was far from over.
The Patriot News reported the retaliation this way. “Mechanicsburg stormed right back in just six plays to score on Shawn Abner’s roll-out keeper from five yards out. Priest rambled for gains of 18 and 23 yards to set up the touchdown with 1:58 still on the clock.”
The score cut the lead to 27-25. A two point conversion was in order. A bobbled snap and a swarming defense snuffed out the Wildcats last real chance. Despite Mechanicsburg forcing a Red Land punt, the game ended as a 27-25 final and Red Land’s first division championship and only undefeated season.
Other notes and quotes…
In researching this game, the emotions were still vivid some 40 years later. The members of the 1981 Championship Team took a ton of pride in their accomplishments. It wasn’t the hubris that sometimes accompanies those that believe natural talent overcomes all such obstacles. It was humble pride. It was the kind of pride born from achievement earned. But, there was something even more. There was almost reverence for their opponent. I think the ’81 Red Land team took such satisfaction in winning the CAC because they earned it the very hard way; by beating an opponent of equal ability. The Mechanicsburg game was the 10th game of the season. There was certainly more than the Mechanicsburg game. But, it was such a good game and so many personalities that I wanted to share this game. In researching the game I stumbled across a YouTube feature on the late Rich Lichtel. I spoke with Frank Gay (current Red Land Head Coach) and Chris Hakel (current Red Land Offensive Coordinator) about Rich and the respect and admiration is palpable. Knowing that Rich was on the visitors sideline gives this story even more richness. PIAA football playoffs didn’t begin until 1986. The ’81 team is left with the CAC championship as the end of its run. What a run it was.
The Patriot News awarded the following awards at the end of the season.
CAC Coach of the Year: Jim Page
CAC All-Star Team: Walt Marriott (Sr), Garry Wintermyer (Sr), Chris Mummert (Sr), Gary Sheaffer(Sr), Paul Wislocky(Sr), Kirk Ciarrocca(So), Brandt Cook(Sr), Bill Snyder(Jr), Lars Hyllienmark(Sr)
Patriot News Area All-Stars:
1st team All Mid Penn Defense: Brandt Cook Defensive Back; Gary Sheaffer Defensive End
Honorable Mention: Walt Marriott Running Back
“The Undefeated CAC Champs! We had some outstanding Sr. leadership and a very strong Junior class that really blended into a great team. Brandt Cook and Walt Marriott led the offense. We had a really good offensive line and a very tough defense. We didn’t have any 1a scholarship guys we just had a lot of really good football players who enjoyed playing together and had great chemistry and a great group of coaches.” – Kirk Ciarrocca (Red Land class of ’84)
“Brian Winters was crazy. I remember him demonstrating with the lineman without helmets and shoulder pads.” – Jim Page
“He (Rich Lichtel) was always a happy guy. He never took the game too seriously. I have never met anyone else like him in my life.”
– Chris Hakel (Mechanicsburg class of ’86 and former player for Coach Lichtel)
“In 1981, we finally had the depth to only play 1 way. It was difficult for Red Land up until that year. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to play defense too but it definitely helped that we weren’t all beat up.” – Walt Marriott
“Garry Wintermyer would say “If you need a yard, run behind me.” – Walt Marriott
“I remember Coach Rados interrupting Coach Page during the Milton Hershey game saying something to the effect of “The hell with the X’s and O’s. You guys are wasting a chance of a lifetime if you let this game slip away.” – Dave Marshall (on Coach Rados’ halftime speech)
“At this point, I have to assume that what they said I said must have been true.” – John Rados (on his fiery halftime speeches)
“He (Lars) came to Red Land as a foreign exchange student. He wanted to play American football. But, he couldn’t run. He just wasn’t coordinated enough. But, kick? That boy could kick.” – Walt Marriott
“I threw an interception like the 3rd play of the game. But, I really wasn’t worried watching how our offensive line was controlling the game.” – Brandt Cook
“The name Walt Marriott will be etched in my mind forever.” – Ryan Priest
“Brandt was a really heady QB. Very intelligent. Walt was the engine. He was the hammer at fullback and Dave was the home run hitter. Dave was very fast and elusive.” – Jim Page
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