BALTIMORE - Midway through the fourth quarter of Saturday's Class 1A North Region playoff game, Manchester Valley's football squad came to the crossroads.
A swarming Reginald Lewis defense and a couple of penalties had forced the Mavericks into a fourth down and 24 yards-to-go situation.
Senior quarterback Dom Frank calmly dropped back and found wide receiver Zach Heron down the left sideline, just a step ahead of the Lewis defense. Frank threw a pinpoint pass that was hauled in by Heron for a 33-yard gain and a crucial first down.
Three plays later, Frank's 6-yard touchdown run proved to be the difference as the fourth-seeded Mavericks scored a thrilling 20-14 victory over top seed Reginald Lewis before a vocal crowd at Baltimore Polytechnic's Lumsden-Scott Stadium.
"It was a play that worked earlier in the game, and I thought, why not go to it again?" said Maverick head coach Tony Shermeyer. "They weren't covering the wheel route. We were having a lot of trouble with our pass protection, so we went with a full-house backfield and max protection.
"Dom made a nice throw, and Zach made a nice catch."
By winning the first playoff game in the school's four-year history, Manchester Valley earned a spot in the regional final. On either Friday night or Saturday afternoon, the Mavericks (8-3) will face second-seeded New Town (9-2) for the right to advance to the state semifinals.
"It turned out to be a great game," said a smiling Shermeyer. "At the end, we were able to come up with some big plays, and that shows our senior leadership. Their athleticism, especially on defense, gave us fits. We were lucky that we have an athletic quarterback. Dom can make plays with his feet."
Frank made the biggest play with his arm. But the Frank-to-Heron long-distance completion that turned the tide wasn't the first gamble that paid off for Shermeyer and his team.
Trailing 8-7 in the final minute of the first half, Manchester Valley moved to the Falcons' 14-yard line on consecutive pass plays. Frank hit wide receiver Chad Kolper for a 36-yard gain, and Joey Bien made a diving catch of a tipped pass for a 16-yard pickup with just one second left.
Bien's catch moved the Mavericks' into field-goal range at the Lewis 14-yard line, but Shermeyer and his staff decided to go for the touchdown. Frank hit senior wide receiver Tyler Cherigo on a slant pattern with no time remaining to give the Mavericks a 13-8 lead at the break.
While the Manchester Valley offense made several big plays, the defense did an outstanding job all afternoon. Led by Brendan Flaherty and Jake Fernandez, the Maverick defense held a Reginald Lewis offense that averaged nearly 39 points per game during a 9-1 regular season to just two touchdowns.
Manchester Valley did an especially fine job on Falcon running back Donnie Neal, who had run for at least 100 yards in 19 consecutive games. The Falcons' workhorse was limited to 65 yards on 22 carries, and posted just one run of more than nine yards.
"We came into the game with the idea that he wasn't going to beat us," Shermeyer said. "We did a nice job getting penetration, and whenever he (Neal) made a cutback we were able to get there and make the tackle. He runs low to the ground and is hard to tackle, but our guys did a great job."
The game started slowly for both teams. After a scoreless first quarter, Cherigo gave the Mavericks a spark when he returned an interception 66 yards to the Lewis 28-yard line.
Six plays later, Frank's two-yard run over the left side of the line gave Manchester Valley a 7-0 lead with 11:01 left in the first half.
"The ball was right there, and I had my lead blockers all the way down the field," Cherigo said of his momentum-changing interception.
The Falcons, who won nine straight games after losing to North Hagerstown in their season opener, took advantage of the second of Manchester Valley's four turnovers to take the lead. A fumbled punt was recovered at the Maverick 11-yard line, and Neal took it from there.
After the senior gained nine yards on first down, he ran untouched into the end zone to put Lewis on the board. Neal's two-point conversion run gave Lewis an 8-7 edge that lasted until Cherigo's touchdown catch on the last play of the half.