There are much easier ways of becoming eligible for the football playoffs than the one Lake Park is attempting to pull off for the second straight year.
Last season the Lancers won their last four games to finish 5-4 but didn't have enough playoff points to make the 256-team field. On a cold and windy Saturday afternoon, they brought a 2-4 record, a three-game losing streak and a must-win mentality into their Upstate Eight Valley matchup at South Elgin.
And Lake Park overcame three first-half deficits to keep their postseason hopes as Zach Gehant threw for 3 touchdowns and ran for another and Scott Filip reached the end zone three times in a 35-26 victory.
"Hopefully we can pull through like last year," Filip said after catching touchdown passes of 11 and 10 yards and returning a kickoff 84 yards.
"It really helped that we were in the same position last year," said Lake Park senior middle linebacker-running back Ronnie Castaldo. "The seniors attitude really changed and the seniors set the tone this week. Everyone was serious and played a lot better and our defense really picked it up.
"I think we've been waiting for a change all year to come and it finally came around at a perfect time. Maybe a little earlier would have been better, but the change came at the right time and we have to keep it going."
It won't be easy for Lake Park (3-4, 2-2) since it hosts unbeaten Neuqua Valley on Friday. But it also wasn't easy against South Elgin (3-4, 2-3), which scored first on a 15-yard pass from Robert Cuda (13-for-32, 221 yards) to John Stanko.
Lake Park followed with a pair of three-and-outs but Mike Ferrante and Craig Ryan pressured Cuda into a pass from his end zone that Castaldo grabbed and made a short return to the 2. Three plays later Gehant scored from a yard for a 7-6 lead.
"When our defense gets us the ball back it feels unbelievable," Filip said.
"Cuda made so many great plays but that put us in a bad spot," said South Elgin coach Dale Schabert, whose team was without injured receiving leader Joe Crivolio. "But the kids bounced back."
Cuda led a 79-yard drive with Tyler Christensen (5 catches, 104 yards) making a great adjustment for a leaping grab between two defenders for a 36-yard touchdown. Cuda was then on the receiving end of a reverse pass for the 2-point conversion.
Then came a wild sequence of kick returns with Filip getting a running start on his to tie the game, TeQuan Cager recovering his fumble and going 98 yards to give South Elgin the lead right back and Lake Park's Zach Thomson nearly breaking his return which went 49 yards. that set up Filip's catch on a comeback route and dive into the end zone for a 21-20 lead.
"(Filip) has got some jets and he's a nice athlete," Schabert said. "They did a nice job."
A botched fair catch on a punt led to Kevin Teglia's 17-yard touchdown grab from Gehant to make it 28-20 just 9.6 seconds before halftime. South Elgin answered again midway through the third when Nick Zimmerman blocked Doug Cavazos' 32-yard field-goal attempt but Christensen's 71-yard return was called back because of a penalty.
Castaldo thought he had a drive-killing, end-zone interception but the officials ruled there was dual possession and Nathan Marotta had a 6-yard touchdown catch with 3:04 left in the third. Castaldo answered by picking off the tying conversion attempt and Filip's 11-yard touchdown grab set the final score with 11:11 left.
South Elgin's next two possessions stalled at Lake Park's 29 on Antonio Shenault's interception and the 31. That allowed the Lancers to start looking toward next week's big challenge.
"You never know," Castaldo said of Neuqua. "With our team's attitude right now I like our chances."