New league, same results for the Cumberland Valley Hitmen.
In their transition from 8-man to 11-man football, the Shippensburg semi-pro football team won their first ever game in the North East Atlantic Football League Saturday, edging the Harrisburg Sharks at Steel High by a 14-8 final score.
The Hitmen (1-0) trailed for most of the second half before Hassan Brockman provided the team with a lift when given a turn behind center.
The team's starting wide receiver was inserted in at quarterback with the Hitmen facing a 3rd and long on their own 2-yard line down two, 8-6, inside the final two minutes.
Brockman pulled a rabbit out of his hat, scrambling to keep the Hitmen's hope alive by recording a big first down. With 1:30 left on the clock, Brockman found starting quarterback Brandon Ellis for their own version of the Philly Special, with Ellis chewing up 85 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“Any win in this league is important to build your case for the playoffs. We'll take the win anytime we can get one, but we played pretty sloppily,” Hitmen head coach Ronnie Kerr said afterwards. “You could tell it was our first game of the year and our first game of 11-on-11 football.”
Playing on a field still covered in snow, the Hitmen defense provided all of their scoring up until the final moments.
The Hitmen took an initial first half lead on a long pick six from defensive back Jarren Shields. He stepped in front of a Sharks pass and returned it 90 yards into the endzone for the game's first score.
On the ensuing extra point attempt, the Sharks scooped up a bobbled snap in the snow and returned it all the way into the opposite endzone, resulting in a 2-point conversion for Harrisburg which cut the lead to just four points, 6-2.
The score remained the same until the third quarter, when a busted coverage allowed for the Harrisburg quarterback to find a wide open receiver in the endzone for a touchdown.
The Sharks got the ball back with less than four minutes remaining and chose to sit on their lead by attempting to run out the clock, which opened up the door for the Hitmen late.
“I thought they got conservative and gave us a chance to get the ball back. I would have too if I was them, because we weren't lighting the world on fire on offense anyway. Their defense was doing really well,” said the Hitmen head coach.
Ellis finished 5-of-17 passing for 33 yards, and had one reception for 85 yards and a touchdown. Running back Josh Burnett ran the ball twice for 48 yards.
Shields, in addition to his interception, defended 3 passes and was the team's co-leader in tackles (4). Defensive back Gabe George and D-lineman Mario Lucien also record 4 tackles Saturday.
“We still have tons of stuff to clean up, but we are a pretty tight group of guys. We definitely dug deep and we didn't panic. For that I credit the coaching staff, the captains and the organization for keeping everybody together,” Coach Kerr said.
The North East Atlantic Football League (NEAFL) is an 18-team league that covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware.
For the Hitmen, the change to the NEAFL and 11-man football has meant a lot of new faces. Their roster has expanded from 30 to 55 over the course of just one offseason. That has been the biggest adjustment early on in the 2019 campaign.
“All our coaches and every player on the team has played 11-man football at some point. Growing up that's what you play,” Coach Kerr mentioned. “We took on maybe 25 guys that drive from Philadelphia. We are meshing a bunch of guys from all over the place to try and form a team. When you can only practice one day a week it is hard to build a bond between teammates and brothers that quick. But I believe we did.”
The game was originally scheduled to take place at Veterans Stadium in Shippensburg, but was moved to Harrisburg's home field due to poor field conditions.
Those same field conditions have forced the Hitmen to move their Week 2 home contest against the Eastern Shore Elements to the Big Spring High School turf field. Kickoff this Saturday will take place at 3 p.m.