Cougars Win Again
Steve Stallone

For the second consecutive week, Hazleton Area put together four solid quarters of football. And, for the second straight game, the Cougars emerged with an impressive victory.

Zach Zukoski rushed for 131 yards and all four Cougar touchdowns, and the defense notched another strong effort Friday night in beating Pittston Area 26-7 at Harman-Geist Memorial Field.

With the win, the Cougars reached the midway point with a 2-3 record, putting their 0-3 start far behind them.

"It was a great effort," noted Cougars head coach Jim Drumheller. "The kids are starting to play with more and more confidence. We're flying around on defense. Offensively, once we got it going in the second and third series, we played very well.

"Most importantly, besides the W, the kids are having fun," he said with a smile. "I love that they're having a ball out there."

After the two teams exchanged punts to start the game, the Cougars started to flex their muscles, mounting a 10-play, 63-yard drive for the game's first score.

A key fourth-down penalty against the Patriots (1-4) gave the drive new life, turning a fourth-and-six into a fourth-and-one that Zukoski and the Cougars converted to keep the chains moving. Zukoski's 12-yard pickup late in the drive set up a first-and-goal, and gave the junior running back 1,000 yards for his career. One play later, he carried it in from three yards out to give the Cougars a lead they would not relinquish.

"I felt amazed, I'm not going to lie," Zukoski said about the milestone. "I've just got to thank my line once again. They did everything for me. I can't do anything without my line. The only reason why I get to carry (the ball) is because my line is progressing as well as I."

After the defense held Pittston Area on downs to force another punt, the Cougars took over near midfield and went right back to work. Ryan Heller connected with 6-foot-4 receiver Gavin Kopczynskie on 32-yard fly pattern down the slideline to the Patriots' 20. Three plays later, Zukoski took a pitch right into the end zone for a four-yard score and a 13-0 lead at 1:06 of the first quarter.

The Patriots answered with their best offensive possession to that point, moving deep into Cougar territory on the running of halfback Kyle Gattuso (17-70). But a motion penalty and a pair of incomplete passes put an end to the drive at the Hazleton Area 18.

"I thought our defense was doing a good job early on, then they started moving us a little bit," Pittston Area coach Mike Barrett said. "I thought we had some opportunities there (on offense), but again, they're a big, physical team. Coach Drumheller and their staff do a great, great job with their kids, and his kids are improving each and every week."

Hazleton Area scored again just 2:43 before intermission, using a quick four-play drive powered by Heller's 30-yard completion to Jeff Ochs. Zukoski's 15-yard scoring run and Tristan Williams' point after upped the lead to 20-0 at the half.

Any thoughts of a Patriot comeback were dashed early in the second half, after Ochs intercepted a James Emmett pass near midfield. On the ensuing play, backup quarterback Julius Ward made his presence felt when he took a quarterback bootleg around left end and raced 32 yards to the 14. Zukoski's 12-yard touchdown run three plays later widened the lead to 26-0.

"To start the third quarter we noticed we had something on the back side whenever we had our unbalanced look. They were shifting and weren't having anybody accountable on that back side," Drumheller said. "With Julius' speed, we were able to get that big play."

Pittston Area averted the shutout, putting together a scoring drive that started late in the third quarter and ended early in the fourth when Emmett hit Gattuso for a 10-yard touchdown pass at the 11:04 mark. It was the first touchdown allowed by the Cougar defense since Week 3 at Delaware Valley.

Heller turned in his third straight solid game at quarterback, completing 8-of-10 passes for 106 yards. Zukoski had his second straight 100-yard game, and fullback Nick George tacked on a season-best 81 yards on 14 carries.

Defensively, the Cougars limited the Patriots to 79 rushing yards, and just eight first downs in the game.

"There's just a feeling about these kids," Drumheller said afterward. "I knew once we got going, we were going to start building more and more confidence as things went on. At the halfway point, I'm very happy the way we're playing. We came back with two very solid games on both sides of the ball."

Things don't get easier for the Cougars, who must now go on the road for three straight games, starting with their showdown at Crestwood (4-1) next Saturday night.

"It only gets tougher," Drumheller said. "Now we take the show on the road. I told the kids to enjoy it, but start getting ready for Crestwood (Saturday) morning."

Header Photo credit- John Koskulitz