Roncalli football pulls away from Lebanon

For the Daily Journal


Roncalli’s frustration with Lebanon’s first touchdown of the evening was made clear by a banging sound that rang throughout the press box.

The Tigers scored on exactly the sort of play the Roncalli coaching staff was concerned about. Slippery Lebanon quarterback Garrett Harker broke containment, scrambled to his right and managed to find wide-open junior receiver Jaheem Joseph 24 yards away in the end zone and threw a strike to tie the ball game.

But that was the last breakdown Roncalli had, and Lebanon never found the end zone again. The host team hung 35 unanswered points on the Tigers and ran away with a 42-7 win to claim a Class 4A sectional championship and advance to the regional on the road next week against top-ranked Mt. Vernon.

Junior quarterback Aidan Leffler completed all 14 of his passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns, setting a Roncalli record for most completions in a game without an incompletion. He also rushed for 47 yards and a touchdown. Senior tailback Baron Huebler rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns and also caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Leffler.

But just as critical was the way the Roncalli defense responded and adjusted to Harker, who converted two third downs and a fourth down to extend the Lebanon drive that ended in a touchdown. Harker completed just 14 of 28 pass attempts for 135 yards, completing just 8 of 22 after completing his first six. Roncalli intercepted him twice.

“We pressured him a little bit,” Roncalli coach John Rodenberg said. “We had a lot of respect for him. He’s a good athlete. We thought we better get a little pressure on him, widen our coverage a little bit.”

As good of an athlete as Harker is, Rodenberg trusted that he would rather throw than run, so the coach dropped his linebackers further back in coverage to take away passing lanes rather than keeping them close to the line of scrimmage to chase Harker around. The defensive front never sacked him, but they did put just enough pressure on him to make the throws a little harder.

The impact was evident on Lebanon’s next drive. Roncalli had taken a 14-7 lead on a 17-yard touchdown run by Huebler, but the Tigers were marching toward another score that would tie it. However, senior cornerback Ryan Papandria picked off a Harker pass on 4th and 7 that got Roncalli the ball back on its own 35-yard line.

“Pap’s a beast,” Leffler said. “He’s special. That pick, that just shifted momentum. We knew we were going to take a shot.”

And they did. On the first play of the drive, Leffler found senior receiver Cole Beckman down the left sideline for a 65-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, putting Roncalli up 21-7 and firmly in control.

“Absolutely huge,” Rodenberg said. “That’s our goal. When we get an interception or a fumble like that. We kinda want to go for the throat. We did and we succeeded. That is a killer. You just lost the ball and then boom, you just give up a touchdown. That’s psychologically tough for anybody.”

After that, Lebanon only got inside the Roncalli 40-yard line once, and that was thanks to a fumbled punt. The Tigers failed to score on that drive at the end of the first half. They finished with just 177 yards of total offense, as Roncalli held them to just 42 rushing yards on 26 attempts. Almost 45 percent of Lebanon’s yards came on its lone touchdown drive.

Meanwhile Roncalli continued to show the balance it needs to advance. Huebler was sturdy as always, averaging 7.8 yards per rush, and Leffler was excellent. His completions went to six different receivers and he was sharp downfield. Along with Huebler and Beckman, Leffler also hit Caden Gore with a touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to bring on the running clock.

“He’s getting so much better as a quarterback,” Rodenberg said. “Each game he improves. His reads are so much better. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and that’s going to help us going forward.”