Blogs > The Best of Don Seeley's Columns

Former Mercury sports editor Don Seeley passed away in June 2013 from a heart attack. For more than a decade Seeley wrote about local sports. Featured here are his columns that were previously printed in The Mercury.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'Mind-boggling' journey continues for Pottsgrove

Originally published in the Nov. 28 edition of The Mercury.

After last year’s loss to Strath Haven in the District 1-Class AAA final, no one asked Rick Pennypacker if he thought he could get his Pottsgrove football team back to the very same game this year. Good thing, too, because they would’ve likely gotten one of those hem-and-haw responses. Something like, “No way.”

Back in August, a few days after the summer practices kicked off, Rick Pennypacker actually was asked if he thought he could get his Pottsgrove football team to the District 1-Class AAA final. His response was, “No way.”

So last Saturday night, moments after Pottsgrove defeated Phoenixville for the District 1-Class AAA title, Pennypacker – never one to be lost for words – actually stammered a bit.

“This is mind-boggling,” he said.

It may have been the most honest response the Falcons coach has uttered since taking over the program 23 years ago.

No one, with the possible exception of the Falcons themselves, could have (or even should have) thought about returning to the district final for a third straight year. No one, because as often as it was talked about or written about, there was no avoiding the fact four-year starters Terrell Chestnut and Maika Polamalu, who both went on to Division I-A schools, as well as veterans like T.J. Demetrio, Dan Foust, Kayvon Greene, Chris Nester and Tyler Wysochanski all graduated, as did reliable kicker Zach Robinson. Together, they occupied 13 starting positions on both sides of the ball.

The Falcons lost a little more than half of their football team, thousands and thousands of yards of offense (and nearly as many points), and a your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine number of big hits and tackles because of graduation.

But the gang that did return – among them Steve Ambs, Eric Bonenberger, Madison O’Connor, Dylan Pritchard and Scott Schollenberger up front on offense, and Robby Curtin, D.J. Ludy, Danny Michaels and Curran Wilson on defense – regrouped. Then they rallied around quarterback Tory Hudgins, who didn’t necessarily evoke too many oohs-and-aahs from the Falcon faithful a year ago while taking snaps for the injured Chestnut.

And after losing their season opener to Norristown and getting overrun by Spring-Ford four weeks later, no one outside the Falcons camp should’ve been thinking district anything.

But the Falcons reloaded and shot by everyone, seven straight opponents in all, to get to the district final for the third straight year. They made it eight straight – with 1,000-yard running back Mark Dukes on the sidelines with a broken ankle – by taking down Phoenixville last weekend.

“You always have to have that mentality you can win,” Hudgins said following Saturday night’s postgame celebration. “The loss to Norristown was a setback, but we got better every week.”

So much better they’ve already surpassed last season’s offensive numbers and are within 28 points of matching the school record for points in a season. Now they’re one game – or one win – away from playing in the eastern final. Now they’re two games – or two wins – away from playing in the state final.

And while everyone from here to Timbuktu will say Pottsgrove has no chance whatsoever this week against Archbishop Wood – the No. 1 ranked Class AAA team in Pennsylvania – odds are the Falcons won’t be listening. They’ll show up, line up, and give it up … that is give it their best shot, which they’ve done – and done well – all season.

Seemingly lost in all the Thanksgiving Day and district championship excitement was Spring-Ford closing out a perfect PAC-10 run and Phoenixville playing two – that’s two – very, very respectable games in a period of four days.

For the Rams, it was their program’s first title in 13 years and first outright championship in 16 years. And while the offense put up big numbers all season – thanks in part to quarterback Hank Coyne and the emergence of sophomore running back Jarred Jones – it was hard to overlook what they did on the other side of the ball – where an entirely rebuilt defense (just one returning starter) came up with enough big hits and big stops to set the table for their explosive offense.

Unfortunately, the Phantoms had to deal with both Spring-Ford and Pottsgrove in those four days. They had the Rams pacing the sidelines and their fans on the edge of their seats until a penalty in the waning moments denied them one last possession, one last chance for the upset. And despite being less than 100 percent to go again three days later, they never quit – not after falling behind following Pottsgrove’s very first play from scrimmage, or on the final play when Ryan Yenchick ran for 19 yards.

Kind of says a lot about the players and the coaching staffs at Spring-Ford, Phoenixville and Pottsgrove – three teams, one of which wasn’t really considered a PAC-10 contender let alone a PAC-10 champion, and two others that weren’t even thought of as district contenders let alone finalists.

MESSAGE FROM AFAR: The web has enabled nearly everyone from everywhere to read everything they want these days. And while I’ve received emails from friend and foe from as far away as Europe, Asia and Australia, the most interesting arrived Thursday morning … all the way from Afghanistan.

Jim Morrison – a 2003 graduate of St. Pius X – found time to write while serving his country there and made it clear how disappointed he was to read about the possible end of Thanksgiving Day football. Morrison was a member of the Lions’ team in 2001 that lost the Pioneer Athletic Conference title to Pottsgrove on Thanksgiving Eve before coming back two nights later to crush WB-Meyers in the PIAA-Class A quarterfinals up in Wilkes-Barre.

“I remember talk of moving the game or postponing the game (with Pottsgrove) because of the playoffs,” Morrison wrote. “I also remember the resistance to do that by our team because of the importance of the Thanksgiving game. It seems sad that (people) can get rid of such a tradition.”

LION-HEARTED: Speaking of keeping the Thanksgiving Day tradition alive…

St. Pius X graduate Gerry Rogers – who just last month was inducted into the Tri-County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame – and other former Lions (and coaches) chose sides and played some old-fashioned sandlot football in their second annual Turkey Bowl early Thursday morning at Manderach Park in Limerick Township.

The participants, along with family and friends, provided the breakfast and coffee prior to the 8 a.m. kickoff. In the end, the Parkinson brothers reportedly led their team to a 22-20 victory.

“We’re preserving the tradition,” said Rogers, who along with oldest son Josh, a redshirt freshman at Villanova, played in the game and accompanied Mrs. Rogers – that would be Cindy – to Pottstown later in the morning to watch their youngest son Tyler and his Owen J. Roberts teammates take on the Trojans. “Anyone interested in joining us next year is welcome.”

Remember that … it may be the only game in town (or towns in this area).

OOPS: Apologies are in order for overlooking Pottstown’s Olatunde Oladipo in Sunday’s column. A senior, Oladipo converted seven point-afters on Thanksgiving to become the third area kicker this season to tie the PAC-10 single-game record for placements. Pottsgrove’s Nick Bleakley and Spring-Ford’s Ryan O’Hara (twice) equaled the mark earlier this season.


The Sideline, Week 13

Thanksgiving's last supper? It doesn't have to be

Originally published Nov. 25 in the print edition of The Mercury

If I was asked once I was asked close to 50 times … all within two or so hours on one of the warmest Thanksgiving mornings in recent memory.

The question (to paraphrase the many posed) was, “Why do we have to give up Thanksgiving Day football?”

The truth is, no one has to.

Yes, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association is expected to approve the proposed “shorter season” during the third and final reading next month (according to just about every source imaginable in this great state of Pennsylvania, bet your house those fellas will, too). But nothing in that proposal will prevent anyone from playing football on Thanksgiving. Summer practice will kick off in mid-August, like it always has. But the regular season will end a week earlier, on the final weekend of October.

And that’s the problem … the big, big problem for the Thanksgiving Day football diehards.

Finding an opponent or opponents to fill in or cut into what will be a three week or more layoff between the end of the regular season and Thanksgiving will be difficult. A couple of athletic directors, even a few coaches, said it may be impossible. They aren’t fibbing, either.

Most if not all programs in District 1 will likely to line up (or cram) their respective future schedules into the new 11-week window. They’ll go with one of two scenarios – 1-and-10 or 2-and-9. That’s one week of practice capped off with a scrimmage, then 10 games; or the customary two weeks of practices and scrimmages, followed by nine games.

For the larger leagues, like the 10-team Pioneer Athletic Conference alignment, that means it’ll make the most sense to go with the 1-and-10 – a week of practice and scrimmage, then one non-league game followed by nine league games. It makes the most sense, that is, for those who put the postseason playoffs high on the priority list, or second only to winning the PAC-10 championship. However, others can still schedule those one or two non-league games, play eight league games, and finish up on Thanksgiving morning. But again, the problem will be filling that gaping hole in the schedule – or finding an opponent to play – on that first weekend of November.

While it may sound easy enough to do, it won’t be. Most if not all programs, even those that haven’t even come close to qualifying for the playoffs in the twentysome years they’ve been in existence, are going to shut down, pack up the gear and call it a season before flipping the calendar over to November.

One very interesting twist to all of this, though, is that the PAC-10 is split right down the middle with five Class AAAA schools and five Class AAA schools. Since 1988, when St. Pius X became the league’s first team to play in the postseason, through an antiquated qualifying process thrown in the trash a long, long time ago, only four schools – Boyertown (twice), Owen J. Roberts (once), Perkiomen Valley (once) and Spring-Ford (once) – have qualified for the AAAA playoffs. Methacton, the other quad-A representative, made back-to-back appearances in the AAA bracket back in 1994-95. For any of those five to have a legitimate chance of advancing into the postseason, using the current playoff points format, they’re going to have to defeat a Class AAAA non-league opponent and run the table in the PAC-10. One loss may not block that path, but two likely (if not assuredly) will, because so many other teams pick up big points week in and week out competing in leagues full of AAAA opponents.

The PAC-10’s remaining five schools in the AAA bracket – Phoenixville, Pope John Paul II, Pottsgrove, Pottstown and Upper Perkiomen – won’t mind the new “shorter season.” They shouldn’t, either. It benefits each and every one of them.

Former members Great Valley and Lansdale Catholic, which won a few district and sub-regional titles as well as a state championship, were often busy in the postseason. Phoenixville made three previous appearances before this season and will be lining up Saturday in the district final against Pottsgrove, which is in its eighth playoff run (all since 2000). Pottstown and Upper Perkiomen have made one and six playoff appearances, respectively.

And while there have only been four instances in which PAC-10 teams have had to juggle the schedule to accommodate one or two teams’ postseason games – like this week with Phoenixville moving its traditional Thanksgiving Day game against Spring-Ford up to Wednesday night – those four instances have created more than enough scheduling commotion and concern for players’ health and well-being … enough for most of those involved to say “enough already with Thanksgiving Day football.”

As hard as that is for diehards like myself to digest, it does carry considerable weight.

But there are still some area school officials – and some may be a stretch – who have actually said (or hinted as much) that they’d like to see their Thanksgiving Day games continue. Others have made it clear they have absolutely no interest in maintaining the tradition that, locally, has spanned four generations.

No one wants high school football players sitting around for nearly a month between games. That’s unfair to them, as well as to just about everyone else affiliated with the programs. Then again, except for the other diehards – those who want the regular season to end the final weekend of October to allow the “few” here and around the state to compete in the postseason – no one can quite comprehend the thought of no football in November, let alone no football on Thanksgiving.

Stay tuned. Or, as one area athletic director said this week, “it’s going to be at least another few months before anything is set in stone” for most of the PAC-10 football programs.

Thanksgiving Leftovers: No one anywhere around these parts enjoyed Thursday’s games more than members of Pottstown’s undefeated 1961 team. The grown-up youngsters, along with now grown-up assistant coach Bill Kerr, were treated to refreshments before the game in the Pottstown Middle School and recognized prior to the game, then walked together to midfield to serve as the Pottstown’s honorary captains for the coin flip. Then they watched the Trojans nearly duplicate their own 58-0 romp from 50 years ago with a 49-6 win over Owen J. Roberts. … OJR’s head coach for that game back in 1961, the legendary Henry “Hank” Bernat, also took in the game (from the opposing stands, of course). … Former Pottstown head coach Bill Rogers, who just completed his 53rd year of coaching the game – guiding the Trojans’ middle school program again this past season – was also in attendance. … Pottstown athletic director Pat Connors earned some props for his organization of Thursday’s special events. Great job by the second-year A.D., as well as by former A.D. John Armato. … Also, a rousing round of applause for the Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown marching bands, still two of the best around (and dare we say another important part of the Thanksgiving Day tradition).

Looking Ahead: Check out Saturday’s edition of The Mercury for an in-depth preview of the District 1-Class AAA final between Phoenixville and Pottsgrove, which kicks off later that afternoon (4:00) at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. … Also, check out Sunday’s edition for the district championship game story and more, and also for a look at the complete listing of the now-completed 2011 Pioneer Athletic Conference (only) team and individual leaders.


A memorable Thanksgiving week on tap

This column was originally published in the Nov. 22 edition of The Mercury.

Unless Mother Nature changes her tune, or you happen to be the Frosty Freddy Football who doesn’t even get a chill until the temperatures dip under zero with accompanying gusts of wind, dress warm this week. Before it’s over, it’ll be the area’s busiest Thanksgiving week of high school football on record.

And unless coaches and administrators at area schools change their tune, it’ll be the very last Thanksgiving week of high school football as we’ve come to know it.

What’s so ironic is that if the tradition and pageantry of Thanksgiving football does indeed end — as most predict it will — this last one may well be one of the most eventful since it all began way back in the early 1900s.

It all kicks off Wednesday night, when Spring-Ford travels to Phoenixville for its rescheduled (or pushed up) Thanksgiving Day game; continues Thursday morning with Upper Perkiomen at Boyertown and the area’s longest-running series featuring Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown at Grigg Memorial Field; and finishes up Saturday with Phoenixville and Pottsgrove playing for the District 1-Class AAA championship at, at, at… who-knows-where.

Oops – word just in – the Phantoms and Falcons will play 1 p.m. at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School.

It took nearly three full days for everyone to get on the same page – and agree to what was on that page, as in time, date and site – for that district championship game. And it wasn’t that anyone needed another dose of disorder, but when Phoenixville and Pottsgrove both won their district semifinals last Friday night, the chaos began.

And before it ended, or when officials announced the exact time, date and site for the championship game at 11:15 a.m. Monday, one of the principles in the process was ready to “get a damn arbitrator.”

Calling the entire course of action frustrating would be an understatement.

But it’s not without precedent:

• Exactly 10 years ago, Pottsgrove – after losing the District 1-AAA final at Strath Haven the Friday before Thanksgiving – came back to defeat St. Pius X the night before Thanksgiving to deny the Lions a share of the PAC-10 championship and win the title outright. Two nights later, Pius regrouped, traveled up to Wilkes-Barre, and crushed nearby WB-Meyers in the PIAA-Class AA state quarterfinals.

• In 2007, Pottsgrove defeated Rustin and Franklin in its first two postseason games, thumped St. Pius X the night before Thanksgiving, then got thumped itself two nights later by Garnet Valley in the District 1/12-Class AAA Subregional final.

• Two years ago, Pottsgrove defeated Upper Moreland and Rustin in the first two rounds of the District 1-AAA playoffs, and St. Pius defeated Del Val Charter and Calvary Christian in the first two rounds of the District 1/11-Class A Subregional playoffs. The Falcons and Lions met Thursday morning – both agreeing to play their junior varsity teams – and Pottsgrove won easily to cap a perfect run through the PAC-10 in the final game between the two schools (Pius closed its doors the following June). Two days later, Pottsgove outlasted Interboro in overtime for the district title, while Pius fell to Tri-Valley in the first round of states.

In case you didn’t notice, in all three of those previous instances Pottsgrove had to come back two days after its Thanksgiving Eve or Thanksgiving Day games to resume its postseason schedule. And St. Pius X had to come back two days after its two Thanksgiving Eve and Thanksgiving Day games to resume its postseason schedule.

For the record, the PAC-10 has a rule that all league games must be played – so there was no way around not playing the Spring-Ford and Phoenixville game; the district agreed, several years ago, that all district finals in the Class AAAA and AAA brackets would be played at a neutral site with turf – and despite admirable attempts to get the Phoenixville-Pottsgrove showdown played somewhere within the PAC-10 neighborhood, those attempts failed because PAC-10 schools with turf had already begun winterizing their facilities and the costs to reverse that work would’ve been exorbitant.

Everyone involved, from the coaches and athletic directors at Phoenixville and Pottsgrove to the District 1 officials – namely executive chairman Rod Stone, executive secretary Bob Ruoff and football chairman Bob Boyer – was frustrated after two-plus days of trying to establish a time, date and site … and mentally wasted after desperately trying to keep everyone happy in the process.

For that, they more than earn a round of applause.

But after this week, the odds are you will not – repeat – will not be hearing any round of applause on any area football field on Thanksgiving Day.

The Hill School, right smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Prep League title chase until dropping its final three games, got a pick-me-up of sorts last week when Adam Regensburg, Fred Santarelli and Jack Mellgard were among the All-MAPL first-team selections.

Regensburg, who broke Hill’s single-season receiving record and had eight interceptions, was a two-way pick at receiver and defensive back. The Towson-bound Santarelli was named as an offensive lineman and Mellgard as a linebacker.

“Regensburg was a dynamic player for us who plays on both sides of the ball,” Hill head coach Grey Simpson said. “It was no surprise he was voted to the first team on offense and defense, and he was in the conversation as a Player of the Year (candidate), too.

“Santarelli was a dominant offensive lineman, clearly one of the top lineman in the MAPL, and was a unanimous selection. And Mellgard was a unanimous selection at linebacker, the deepest position in the MAPL. (Mellgard’s) contributions to our team were praised by all the league coaches.”

The Rams also had four players receive honorable mention – Santarelli (defensive lineman), Nate Mueller (linebacker), Kwame Larbi (running back) and Grant Smith (quarterback).

Sad news hit the Owen J. Roberts football community this past weekend when it was learned Charles Nesley, the father of assistant coach Chuck Nesley, passed away.

The 62-year-old Nesley, a longtime member of the Bucktown Boosters and as big a supporter of the program as anyone, was a 1968 graduate of OJR. He played football for Henry Bernat, and won’t likely ever be named to any all-time team this or all-time team that. But one thing Nesley did do was play the game like few others. He played every single down as if it was his last one, played every single down as if it was the difference between winning and losing a championship. And if he had a broken finger, broken leg, broken ribs or concussion, as long as he could stand, he was out on the field… playing to win.

Not surprising, it’s how his son (Chuck) and daughter (Jen) competed, both in high school and college.

Yes, he will absolutely be missed. Charles leaves us with so many great memories, a blessing in itself. But what many of us will remember most about Charles Nesley was that as hard as he played the game, he was just as soft-hearted a man as a husband to Sue; as a father to Chuck and Jen; and as a genuine friend – with that quirky smile – to countless others.


The Sideline, Week 12

Hostile Takeover

This column originally appeared in the Nov. 18 edition of The Mercury.

LOWER POTTSGROVE — Most weekends, Rick Pennypacker will take a glimpse of scores from around Southeastern Pennsylvania. In all likelihood, he'll sneak a peek to see just how Strath Haven is doing, too.

No one would blame him if he did.

Before this season, Pennypacker led Pottsgrove to the District 1-Class AAA final in six of seven postseason appearances. In four of those six championship games, Pennypacker watched Strath Haven first disassemble and then defeat his Falcons. And forget the scores - 35-7 in 2000, 35-19 both in 2001 and 2003, and 42-28 a year ago - because they didn't even seem to be that close.

So back on October 1 - or the halfway mark of the regular season - when Pottsgrove and Strath Haven had identical (and very uncharacteristic) 3-2 records, Pennypacker wasn't exactly gazing into any

crystal ball and seeing another game with Strath Haven in the Falcons' future.

"If you would have told me in the beginning of the year that we would be playing Strath Haven in the district semifinals I would have laughed at you," Pennypacker said earlier this week. "Really, I would've laughed at you."

Well, no one is giggling right now.

Not with Strath Haven visiting Pottsgrove tonight in, you guessed it, the District 1-Class AAA semifinals.

The Panthers, who didn't even come close to winning yet another Central League title and were given little or no chance of adding to their record 11 district titles and two state championships after their dismal start, did a reverse … an impressive reverse, that is. They won four of their next five, qualified for the postseason, and avenged one of those two early losses in last Friday night's opener by defeating Marple-Newtown, 31-7.

Then again, so did the Falcons. They ran off five straight wins, all but one rather lopsided wins, too. Then they took care of Pope John Paul II last Friday night, 44-19.

"(Strath Haven) was a young football team, and they had to play Marple-Newtown and Garnet Valley early on," Pennypacker said. "But they've gotten better, a lot better, and that's what Strath Haven seems to do every year.

"But our kids have gotten better, too. And that's a credit to our kids and to our coaching staff. Everyone believed in what they were doing."

So much so that tonight's fifth meeting, is so intriguing … despite those past results.

"Our kids are not in awe of (Strath Haven)," Pennypacker said. "They believe they can beat (Strath Haven). They've prepared well all week, and they're excited to be playing that team. We feel it's a reward to be where we are right now."

The Falcons' reward is going up against a team very similar to the one Pennypacker and his staff have seen before.

Strath Haven (8-3) isn't at all fancy. Head coach Kevin Clancy's scheme is plain and simple - run, run and run some more, play defense, then run, run and run even more.

James Griffin, the Panthers' feature ballcarrier and only big contributor back from last year's rout of the Falcons down at Coatesville High School, has 1,055 yards and 13 touchdowns. Andrew Crawford (641 yards, 10 TDs), Keith DeCindis (519 yards, 9 TDs) and Tevon Howie (475 yards, 5 TDs) provide more than just a breather for Griffin in the run game, too. And quarterback Kevin Mohollen, believe it or not, has thrown even fewer times than Pottsgrove's Tory Hudgins. In last weeek's win over Marple-Newtown, Mohollen didn't even attempt one pass.

"I honestly don't know if (Strath Haven) is as good a team as they were last year," Pennypacker said. "But I do know they're good. It seems like every time we play them they're peaking. Right now they're as good as any team we've seen this year."

If there is a key to the Falcons' fortunes, it may lie up front with their offensive line -with center Zach Birch, guards Dylan Pritchard and Scott Schollenberger, tackles Eric Bonenberger and Madison O'Connor, and tight end Steve Ambs. The sizeable gang has actually helped Hudgins (1,033 yards, 20 TDs), Robbie Curtin (710 yards, 11 TDs) and Danny Michaels (316 yards, 3 TDs) - and Mark Dukes (1,043 yards and 9 TDs) before he went down with a broken ankle - run up more yardage than Strath Haven this season.

But no one has presented such an imposing challenge to the Falcons' front six as Strath Haven does with such defensive personnel as veteran Jake Morris (team-high 73 tackles), Josh Johnson, Kevin Sherry, Howie, Brian Vendetta (team-high three sacks), and P.J. Plummer. A year ago, the threesome of Morris, Plummer and Howie combined for 219 tackles to help anchor the Panthers to that District 1-AAA title.

"We have to play fundamentally sound football because Strath Haven does," Pennypacker said. "We have to match that. If we get out of our fundamentals, if we don't play fundamentally sound, it could get ugly."

That means not only on the offensive side of the ball, but on the defensive side as well. Containing Strath Haven's run game, creating mistakes and turnovers, will be paramount for the Falcons - who have gotten solid play throughout the season from D.J. Ludy, Curtin, Seth Figueroa, Curan Wilson, Nick Brennan, Marquis Barefield, Christian Simpkins and Michaels.

"All I can tell you is that Strath Haven's very good, as good as advertised," Pennypacker said. "And we don't get tired of (playing them). Our kids don't worry about (the earlier losses), either. That's past history to them. They know to be the best you have to beat the best.

"A lot of people will say you can't beat Strath Haven. But you have to get to the point where you have the opportunity to play Strath Haven, which means you have to win a lot of games just to get into the playoffs, to get a chance to play Strath Haven. To get another chance kind of says something for us. Believe me, our kids will be ready and they will play hard."


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Courageous Wildcats endure, even in defeat

This wasn’t supposed to be the season Owen J. Roberts mirrored its great teams of years past, specifically the 2003 state champion and 2005 state runner-up teams.

Not with just five seniors in the starting lineup and only seven on the entire roster. Not after an anything-but-promising start.

And definitely not after junior Kelsey Kramer – a teammate as well as genuine friend to everyone associated with the OJR soccer program – died Sept. 23 following an automobile accident in East Coventry Township.

The Wildcats could’ve packed it in and shut it all down the moment news of the 16-year-old Kramer’s passing circulated throughout the high school that morning. They could’ve called it a season right there and then.

They could’ve called it a season before they courageously stepped back onto the soccer field three days later, but instead went out and won … and won, and won and won some more – 11 straight games, to be specific, to reach the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship.

But after Boyertown deprived the Wildcats that title, and another loss denied them a coveted District 1 title – after the very few remaining expectations they were clinging to virtually vanished – no one would’ve blamed them had they called it a season.

Again, the bold and brave bunch responded … and played their way into Tuesday night’s PIAA-Class AAA state semifinal against Pennridge at Harriton High School.

Unfortunately, after nearly 85 spirited minutes – or 4:44 into overtime, when Pennridge’s Megan Shenk scored off a corner to give the Rams a 2-1 win – the Wildcats had to call it a season.

Had to…

There were, surprisingly, few tears.

But there were oh so many heavy hearts.

It wasn’t just a loss that ended an extraordinary season, but a loss that dug deep into Owen J. Roberts’ collective soul and tugged – tugged oh so very hard – at the heart of a team that had overcome such long, long odds and the kind adversity few high school teams, fortunately, ever experience.

“Every team, every club team, always has its naysayers,” OJR goalie Cassie Popp said as her teammates strolled ever so slowly to the team bus. “But to see where we came from, how we were ripped apart… I think those (critics) underestimated us, underestimated how adversity bonded us together.

“Just look what we’ve done. We got through the ups and downs in the PAC-10, the ups and downs in districts. We made a promise to one another to do our best.”

They made a promise to a departed but not forgotten teammate to not only get back on the soccer field, but to get out there and play hard, for 80 minutes or however long it took, each and every game.

“The day we found out about (Kramer’s death), it was obviously devastating to all of us,” Popp recalled. “I know our first practice we just tried light stuff, but our heads weren’t in it and our hearts weren’t in it.

“And then in our first game (following the accident) against Pottsgrove, it was like trying to run through water. But after we scored that first goal it was like we all realized we could score, we could win.”

After that 5-0 win over Pottsgrove, Popp said seeing that first goal was “like a dam breaking … a reaffirmation that we could do it.”

They did indeed do it, and throughout that 11-game winning streak – as well as every game that followed, including Tuesday night’s against Pennridge – the memory of Kelsey Kramer was their rallying cry.

Don’t think head coach Joe Margusity didn’t notice, either.

“Going out for that first game (after Kramer’s death) was hard for me and hard for the girls,” Margusity remembered. “But playing that game brought some sort of solidarity with it. It brought all of us together.

“I was more worried about the girls wanting to continue to enjoy life. We all needed each other for support, and I felt it was my job to get them back out on the field.”

The Wildcats didn’t just step back onto the field and go through the motions, though. They played as well if not better than most expected.

They were playing again Tuesday night – one of only four Class AAA girls’ soccer teams in all of Pennsylvania to be playing Tuesday night.

Yes, Popp, Holly Sullivan, Juliana Provini, Emily Morgan, Gabby McKee, Katie Dempsey, Rachael Carpenter, Taylor Murphy, Steph Tamburro, Meghan Antrim, Bridget Gallager, Jess Buffa and Maddy Cantello all played … and all played well.

In the end, this team didn’t quite match the achievements of those 2003 and 2005 teams. But some who will say no team – not even the 2003 and 2005 teams – could match this team’s will to win … or its courage.

“Before the game, ‘Carp’ was saying how we’re all here tonight – our coaches and our friends,” Popp said, quoting a portion of Carpenter’s pregame pep talk. “It was kind of strange, too, because it just felt as though Kelsey was right there with us, right there in the middle of our circle.

“You always want to win, especially for your seniors. We wanted so badly to win this for Kelsey, too. (Her memory) always seemed to give us that extra punch, that extra spark. This (loss) hurts right now, hurts a lot. The tears will come later.”

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Turkey Day games getting chopped?

Next week may be the final Thanksgiving Day football feast for this area.

For those who would welcome such news, don’t get too excited yet. For those who would be disheartened by such news, don’t get too upset yet.

Not quite yet.

Some coaches – not all coaches, mind you – have made it clear they’re in favor of starting their respective Pioneer Athletic Conference seasons a week earlier and finishing up their regular seasons on the first weekend of November. And they’re not alone, either. Starting early and finishing early, or squeezing the season into 10 weeks, seems to be what most coaches around the state favor as well.

The PIAA is expected to make that entire lot very happy by the end of the year. After two readings and subsequent lopsided votes supporting the condensed 10-week regular season, the PIAA will no doubt accept – following next month’s third and final reading – the proposal.

So, unless the good Lord allows Aloysius Lilius and Pope Gregory XIII to email Earth’s authorities a new version of the calendar they invented for us way back in the late 1500s (the one we still use to this day), get prepared for 10-game seasons in the future.

Ten … that’s it. Kick it off the first weekend of September, finish it up the first weekend of November – 10 weeks, 10 games.

So, the only way anyone is going to play more than 10 games is to qualify for the postseason, or earn a spot in district play through one of two formats – point standings and power ratings – currently used to determine who does and who does not qualify for the playoffs.

Mind you, teams will still be permitted to play beyond that date, even on Thanksgiving. But finding a non-league opponent to help cut into what would otherwise be a three-week layoff for teams not involved in the playoffs would be difficult. Asking players to go through the motions for three weeks of practice and then ignite their competitive fires after the long layoff would be unfair, too. And those are all challenges subject to finding two schools who actually want to play one another on Thanksgiving.

A couple of scheduling conflicts in the past – how St. Pius X and Pottsgrove played one game on a Wednesday night and another in what would be their final game on Thanksgiving with junior varsity players because of playoff games ahead of them on those respective weekends – have also weakened the support for Thanksgiving Day football.

There could be another conflict next week, too. If Phoenixville defeats Academy Park in Friday night’s District 1-Class AAA semifinal, the Phantoms would face a Thanksgiving Day game with Spring-Ford – which needs a win to clinch the PAC-10 title outright – and then have to come back either Friday or Saturday to play for the district title.

If that scenario unfolds, rest assured it will, in all likelihood, take whatever stuffing right out of Thanksgiving Day football.

So, for now at least, two of the area’s three remaining Thanksgiving games – Boyertown and Upper Perkiomen and Phoenixville and Spring-Ford – seem destined to be pushed up to earlier dates on their respective schedules beginning next season.

The jury is still out, as they say, on the third matchup – Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown – the area’s only genuine Thanksgiving Day rivalry. The Wildcats and Trojans have been lining up against one another on Thanksgiving morning for more than 50 years now. Their game still has the support of a few coaches, some administrators, and a whole lot of fans. They have, as many say, the utmost respect for its tradition.

Who knows for sure, but they may also have the only game in the surrounding neighborhoods on Thanksgiving beginning next year.

The Pottsgrove-Pope John Paul II game in last week’s District 1-Class AAA opening round was the third instance in which Pioneer Athletic Conference teams have gone up against one another in the postseason, each time in the AAA bracket.

Upper Perkiomen avenged a 41-14 regular-season loss to Lansdale Catholic by defeating the Crusaders, 29-26, in the first round of districts in 1997. Perkiomen Valley also avenged a 36-27 regular-season loss to LC by defeating the Crusaders, 48-14, in the first round of districts in 1998. Ironically, Upper Perkiomen and LC shared the PAC-10 title in 1997, and Perkiomen Valley and LC – along with Spring-Ford – shared the title in 1998.

There have been two other games in which PAC-10 schools have played one another in the postseason, only not when both were members of the league. In 1995, Methacton – which would join the Pioneer Athletic Conference 13 years later – defeated Great Valley, 20-14, for the District 1-AAA title. In 2008, Great Valley – in its first year out of the PAC-10 and back in the Ches-Mont League – dropped a double-overtime 30-29 thriller to Owen J. Roberts in a District 1-AAA opening round game.

If Phoenixville defeats Academy Park and Pottsgrove gets by Strath Haven this Friday night in the two District 1-AAA semifinals, it would set up a first time all-Pioneer Athletic Conference district final.

Spring-Ford surrendered 60 points to Coatesville in last Friday night’s District 1-Class AAAA debut, which matched the school record for most points allowed in a game. The only other time a Spring-Ford team allowed 60 or more points was in a 60-3 loss to PAC-10 champion Pottstown in 2002. The three points – Eric Gall’s field goal, which capped the Rams’ first drive of the evening – were the only points the Trojans permitted during the entire regular season. … PAC-10 schools are 0-5 – and been outscored 194-80 – in Class AAAA district playoff games.


The Sideline, Week 11

Motivational speaker Hillier entertains at Spring-Ford

There are a lot of people who firmly believe camps, clinics and combines are essential in the development of a young athlete. Camps to learn the fundamentals, clinics to refine them, and combines to see just how one measures up against others … mandatory means to stardom, perhaps even a college education and more.

Others, like Mickey McDaniel, the athletic director at Spring-Ford High School, firmly believe there are two considerably more important elements, or necessities, in the development of a young athlete – character and leadership – and firmly believes neither can be cultivated on any playing field, or at any camp, clinic or combine.

So McDaniel called on Craig Hillier, who speaks to more than 75,000 student-athletes a year – and to more than two million since 1990 – to convey that invaluable message to an estimated 125 more at Spring-Ford recently.

“To have the opportunity to have someone such as Craig Hillier speak to our student-athletes about character and leadership is a privilege we needed to take full advantage of,” McDaniel said. “It was an incredible opportunity for our student-athletes.”

A native of Lakeville, Minn., Hillier’s high-energy, two-hour program and contagious enthusiasm captivated everyone – from the student-athletes to McDaniel, coaches and administrators in the Spring-Ford auditorium. He was, in a word, fascinating.

“This has to be a win for the people on the other side,” Hillier said, nodding from the stage to the seats prior to his program. “The bottom line … this is about the kids.”

Hillier never once strayed from that bottom line, mixing trivia questions, music, games and laughs in with timely and both striking and inspiring remarks.

He has written two books, “Playing Beyond The Scoreboard” and “How To Step Up As A Team Leader And Still Keep Your Friends.” And as good a read both are, neither bring his message about character and leadership to life as his upbeat, absolute fun and educational program on stage.

“I like to mix in some fun and games, and throw in a serious point here and there, because minds opened through some humor get the message,” Hillier explained.

Hillier quieted his audience from the outset.

“You have to learn to stretch yourself,” he said. “Think about what you can do and what you’re willing to settle for. The difference between an average high school career and an awesome high school career is learning to stretch a little bit.”

And part of that stretching, he added, is knowing that decisions made are decisions that determine direction.

“Every time you decide to do something, ask yourself, ‘If I do this, where will it take me? If I do this, how will I feel about it tomorrow? If I do this, will I be proud to tell others about it?’” Hillier said.

To borrow a time-worn cliché, Hillier tells it like it is. He speaks his own language, a language understood by young and old alike. A father of two, he knows what it is like to be a parent. He has an insight into what his own teenagers’ lives are all about.

Knowing what those lives are about, and helping them through what can be awfully demanding years, is what Hillier dives into.

“My goal is to help kids, help them navigate through the challenging times,” he explained. “You know, you don’t have to be great to start something. But you must start something to be great. There are just so many opportunities out there. You have to get involved.

“You have to be fundamentally strong, too, or you will struggle. Sometimes the smallest adjustment will make the biggest difference. We all have to learn to think different at times, learn to see what other people may not see.”

And never once, he added, forget about the three “Rs” … and he wasn’t referring to that other cliché of reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic.

“Resiliency, respect and responsibility,” Hillier emphasized. “Resiliency … always remember that whenever there’s a setback there’s a comeback. Respect is such a huge piece in all this, too … like with the bullying today – remember you don’t have to be friends with everyone, but be friendly with the people you go to school with. And responsibility…

“You have to learn what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it. You have to have that ability to respond. Mistakes can be great moments when you’re trying to do something right and you mess up. Mistakes can be reckless moments when you’re trying to do something stupid. Learn the difference.”

Understanding responsibility, accepting it, can be the difference between being a victor and victim, too. The victor learns and grows. The victim, on the other hand, will be shamed, and likely want to share the blame.

“Life is like a one-way street,” Hillier said. “You can always look back, but you can’t go back. So remember when you make a mistake, and remember how you’ll never want to feel like that again.”

Hillier admitted it is so easy for student-athletes – all young people, for that matter – to fall into traps. He acknowledged the challenge of wanting to fit in, and how that challenge may include at one time or another, trying alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Not only are all three unhealthy, all three are illegal … and just one sip or one puff can prove to be so costly.

“Maybe those type of things look appealing because some other people, maybe even some friends, are doing them,” Hillier explained. “But don’t buy into the lie of the high. One night (of what others may think is fun) can destroy a life.

“Remember, there are way too many good things going for you. There is no need to experiment with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Like I said, with every kick comes a kickback. Do not let shame ruin your game. Be responsible.”

Hillier’s underlying message? Take charge of your life, and take charge of it now. Be a role model. Be a leader, not a follower.

“There are so many opportunities to step up and lead,” he said. “So when that ball of opportunity comes your way, don’t drop it. That one time is your chance, it’s your opportunity. Don’t stop, don’t back off … it’s your time.”

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

From top to bottom, it’s been a memorable season for PAC-10

It seems as though the high school season just kicked off. Yet all that remains this week (other than the playoffs, of course) is one Pioneer Athletic Conference matchup, a handful of non-league games, and the storied Hill-Lawrenceville showdown. Then there are the three Thanksgiving morning games … a treasured tradition that, in all likelihood, will get the death sentence in the coming months after the PIAA officially approves a shorter and much earlier-ending season.

But what is so ironic is how this Pioneer Athletic Conference season opened with so many questions and evolved into one with even more. It has been, if nothing else, one of the most unpredictable in recent memory.

Expectations exceeded reality for a couple of teams. Players, coaches and fans, even the media, were guilty in their preseason opinions of Boyertown and Upper Perkiomen – both of whom had more than a few holes to fill in their lineups and lugged large, large targets on their backs from the get-go. Few people, if any, thought Pottsgrove and Spring-Ford were ready to make the impressive runs they have – not when the Falcons lost two of the best players to ever step foot on a PAC-10 field and a slew of other veterans to graduation; not when the Rams lost all but one of their starters on the defensive side of the ball to graduation.

Still, it wasn’t so much the disappointing downfall of two teams and startling surge of two others as much as it was what so many others provided the PAC-10 this fall.

Phoenixville, which saw two straight (and two very promising) seasons devastated by injuries, stepped up front-and-center as a contender. The Phantoms were among those in the chase until last week’s loss to Pottsgrove, but could still have something to say about who or whom wins the PAC-10 title when they entertain Spring-Ford on Thanksgiving.

Methacton, which hasn’t had much to shout about since enlisting in the PAC-10 three years ago, took Phoenixville down to the wire before losing by four points; lost by just two points to Pottsgrove; and had Spring-Ford on the run before losing by a couple of touchdowns. But the Warriors turned it around since, winning three in a row that – regardless of Thursday’s outcome up at neighboring Perkiomen Valley – clinched their first winning season in the PAC-10 and first winning season overall in 11 years. That’s a big step for head coach Paul Lepre and his program, and a giant leap for the PAC-10 in its collective effort to become even more competitive.

Perkiomen Valley had so many new faces show up for Day One of summer camp that head coach Scott Reed and his staff thought of giving everyone a name tag. The Vikings opened with three straight wins before mounting injuries – painfully similar to what Phoenixville had endured the previous two seasons – left them hobbling. But the emergence of a sophomore quarterback and so many other unknowns around him kept the Vikings competitive, so much so they had league leader Spring-Ford on its collective heels throughout last Friday night’s game.

Pope John Paul II – the team that only a year ago survived just one game and gave up a whopping 40-plus points every weekend – stumbled out of the gate with three losses. The Golden Panthers reversed their ways in a hurry, though, winning four of their next six, taking Phoenixville to the final minute before falling in one of those two losses. Two months ago, if anyone would’ve uttered PJP and district playoffs in the same sentence they would’ve been called for unsportsmanlike chit-chat and ordered to stay home every weekend in September, October and November. But guess who’s playing over at Pottsgrove again this Friday night?

Most will claim Pottstown and Owen J. Roberts haven’t had a lot to shout about. But Pottstown sure opened some eyes early on with wins over Boyertown and Phoenixville (sandwiched around a disheartening come-from-ahead loss to Perkiomen Valley), and despite a few injuries that have played into their recent five-game tailspin, they too had Spring-Ford with its back to the wall just two weeks ago. And Owen J. Roberts, which graduated nearly its entire offense and defense – a gang of veterans who produced 30 wins, a PAC-10 title and three postseason appearances – nonetheless plugged away. The Wildcats had three games in their grasp, and none of those three included the one-point setback to Upper Perkiomen or the double-overtime loss to Methacton.

A darn good season after all … and it isn’t over yet.

* * *

Perkiomen School closed out its season last weekend, finishing up 4-4. While most would say .500 is no big deal, well, it actually was up in Pennsburg.

Head coach Tom Calvario, in just his second season, had a roster of 24 players. Repeat, 24 players. His team played a much, much stronger schedule this season, too. That, along with the lack of depth, became oh so evident down the stretch when the Panthers dropped their final three games.

But 4-4? Not bad at all. And it was the eighth time in 13 years – or since 1999, when the program was brought back after a six-year hiatus – Perkiomen has had a .500 or better mark.

* * *

Hill School’s game on Sunday with Blair Academy marked the 50th anniversary of the Rams’ 66-0 blast of the Bucs – which remains the second-highest number of points ever scored by a Hill team and the second-largest margin of victory in the history of the program. The Rams couldn’t match those numbers from back in 1961, of course, as they fell to Blair and slipped out of the Mid-Atlantic Prep League title chase.

They can erase that memory in a hurry, though, and put an exclamation point on its season with a victory this Saturday at Lawrenceville. It’ll be the 109th meeting between the two rivals – who make up one of the longest-running scholastic football series in all of America.


Pennypacker, Furlong keeping teams focused on big picture

This column originally ran in the Nov. 4 edition of The Mercury

Pottsgrove and Phoenixville are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the District 1-Class AAA playoffs point standings. All the coaches, all the players, and all their parents – probably mom-mom and pop-pop, too – are fully aware of that.

So one would think there’d be a bit of that “No. 1 vs. No. 2” frenzy tonight when the two meet one another at Pottsgrove.

Not for Rick Pennypacker. Not for Bill Furlong.

Not when both head coaches are still looking for improvement, and are desperately seeking it with revised line-ups due to injuries – specifically the loss of a player who may have been as responsible as any other for getting their teams to the enviable position they’re in at this juncture.

Pennypacker and the Falcons will be without Mark Dukes, who broke his ankle in the first half of last week’s win over Perkiomen Valley. Furlong and the Phantoms will be without Tim Hunt, who injured his knee during last week’s win over Upper Perkiomen.

Taking one player out of the lineup may not seem all that devastating, mind you. But Dukes had run up 1,043 yards and scored nine times as the Falcons’ workhorse taillback and was an integral part of the defensive secondary. And Hunt may have been one of the Phantoms’ – if not the entire Pioneer Athletic Conference’s – best two-way tackles.

So looking for improvement, and looking for it in a game with so many regular-season and post-season implications as this one, suddenly becomes an even more complex challenge.

“I’m not as concerned about the district seeding as I am with seeing our team continually improve,” said Pennypacker, who knows a win will keep his Falcons at No. 1 and also just a game back of Spring-Ford (who Phoenixville plays on Thanksgiving) in the PAC-10 championship chase. “I know you can be the No. 1 seed for districts and get knocked out right away if your team is not peaking, not playing better, each week.

“Every game we’ve played the past month or so (since the loss to Spring-Ford five weeks ago) has been a big game for us. We knew if we lost just one of them we were almost assured there would be no shot at a share of the PAC-10 title. We knew if we lost just one of them we’d be looking at a lower seed for districts, or the chance of not even making the playoffs.”

For Pottsgrove, which has won a pair of PAC-10 championships and finished second twice since 2007 – not to mention qualified for the playoffs and won a District 1-AAA championship in that four-year period – being at the top of its game week in and week out is expected … regardless of who is or who isn’t in the lineup.

Furlong, of course, is looking for the same improvement from the Phantoms.

“We are trying to approach this game like every other game this year,” he explained. “We want to eliminate mistakes, execute assignments, and see the kids leave it all on the field. Sure, we want to see that improvement, but we want our guys to be proud of their efforts, win or lose.

“We need that great effort by our guys keeping the emotion out of (tonight’s game). They can’t get too high or too low during the game. They have to play with enthusiasm, with passion … but not emotion.”

The Falcons will have to do it without Dukes. The Phantoms will have to do it without Hunt.

For Pottsgrove, it may mean a few more passes from Tory Hudgins. The junior quarterback, who has run up 865 yards and 17 touchdowns himself, has only gone up top 44 times. But he’s completed 24 of them, one-third of which have ended up in the end zone.

“(The loss of Dukes) certainly makes things more difficult,” Pennypacker said earlier this week. “Now we have to find someone else to run the ball. Maybe we’ll have to allow Hudgins to air it out, or maybe even move him to tailback and play a sophomore at quarterback. I’m not sure what we’re going to do, but we have a huge problem.”

Pennypacker’s defense, which got stand-up performances from four sophomores in last week’s win over Perkiomen Valley, faces a few problems in slowing down or stopping Phoenixville’s offense, too.

The Phantoms, who haven’t turned the ball over once their last three games, have run the football 394 times. Quarterback Alec McQuiston and backs Vinny Nattle, Ryan Yenchick and Travis Andrews have accounted for 380 of those 394, which have averaged out to just over 277 yards a game thus far.

Trying to maintain the space to run, or provide the necessary time to throw – which McQuiston has done well when required (50 of 91 for 578 yards and five touchdowns) – and doing it successfully without Hunt will be key, too.

“Of course we will try and establish the run, just as we have all year,” Furlong said. “We know coach Pennypacker will have answers, though, so we must have answers for his answers.”

“We’ll need a tremendous effort from all 11 of our kids (on defense) in order to stay on the field with Phoenixville,” Pennypacker said. “They scare you because they have those four guys, four tough kids who can hurt you and give you nightmares. We know this is our toughest game so far and if we slack off one bit we’ll be run off the field.”

* * *

Pope John Paul II, arguably the big surprise this season, visits Upper Perkiomen tonight looking for a win to clinch the No. 7 seed in the District 1-AAA playoffs – which would mean a likely rematch with either Phoenixville or Pottsgrove in next week’s first round.

The Golden Panthers (4-4, 5-4), unlike both Phoenixville and Pottsgrove, have gotten most of their offense – 78 percent of it, to be exact – through the air. They’ll need yet another strong effort from the offensive line to give David Cotellese the time and space to pick apart an Upper Perkiomen defense that allows only 69 yards a game, or 163 less than what PJP is accustomed to every weekend.

“Nothing has changed here with our kids,” said PJP head coach Mike Santillo, whose team has reversed a 1-3 start by winning four of its last five games. “Our kids are the same this week as they were in the off-season, the same as they were the first day of practice back in August.

“They continue to take one game at a time and let the chips fall where they may. Our captains – Jacob Gribb, Matt Bildstein, David Cotellese and Ryan Ignatovig – have been leading the way since the day they were named (captains) last February.”


The Sideline Week 10

Inexperience not slowing Pottsgrove

This column originally ran in the Oct. 28 edition of The Mercury

Rick Pennypacker doesn’t buy into rebuilding, restructuring, remodeling, recreating, whatever you care to call it, even when graduation hits his Pottsgrove football program so hard you’d think there was nothing to do but endure a complete renovation.

Back in June, after bidding a painful farewell to eight seniors who occupied a combined 14 positions in the offensive and defensive starting lineups – eight seniors who led (or watched from nearby) the Falcons capture a couple of Pioneer Athletic Conference championships, qualify for the postseason for four straight years, and win the school’s first District 1-AAA title – Pennypacker still wasn’t in that patch-it-up and mend-for-awhile mode.

Not even after the Falcons opened the season with a 27-20 loss to Norristown.

“We always have high expectations here,” Pennypacker explained earlier this week. “We set our goals every year as we have in the past, regardless of our talent. I think every coach does that, so we’re not the exception in that regard.

“We lost more than just the Big Three (Terrell Chestnut, Kayvon Greene and Maika Polamalu) last year. We lost guys like T.J. Demetrio, Dan Foust, Chris Nester, Zach Robinson and Tyler Wysochanski, too. That was a good group. But we still felt we had a core of kids who would be able to compete.”

Well, they sure have been competing … again.

Going into tonight’s game at Perkiomen Valley, the Falcons (6-1, 6-2 overall) are just one game back in the loss column to Pioneer Athletic Conference leader Spring-Ford – which sacked them with their lone league setback four weeks ago – and just one win away from officially clinching a fifth straight postseason appearance and home game for the first round of the District 1-AAA playoffs.

There’s no question the Falcons have improved significantly since the season kicked off, and they’ve done so thanks to the blue-collar work ethic up and down both lines and the added touch of a skilled workforce behind them. Winning has been restored since the setback to Spring-Ford. And if they’re forced to settle for runner-up honors (for the third time in the last five seasons), it may be one of the best finished works Pennypacker and his staff have ever crafted.

“We played well enough to win against Norristown,” Pennypacker said. “We had some breakdowns due to inexperienced players on the field. The Spring-Ford game was all my fault because our defensive game plan asked some of our kids to do things they weren’t ready to do. Spring-Ford is a great team and well-coached, and they played with more emotion than we did. But (the loss) was my fault because I should’ve simplified the game plan more than I did.”

Nothing has been simple – for Pottsgrove’s opposition – since, though.

“We tweaked a few things, but it was more about practicing fundamentals, and practicing them hard. We had to come right back (after Spring-Ford) and play a very good Methacton team. We could have lost that one, too, but our kids hung tough. Since then, I’ve leaned a little more on our veterans, guys like Steve Ambs, D.J. Ludy, Robbie Curtin and Danny Michaels.

“Plus we feel in order to win consistently in our league you have to be able to run the ball and stop the run. (Eric) Bonenberger, Ambs, Scott Schollenberger and Madison O’Connor have played well up front for us in that regard. We’ve leaned hard on them, mainly because we lost five of our seven people up front on defense. But they’ve responded. Our young kids have matured, too.”

The youth movement has been led by, among others, quarterback Tory Hudgins, who saw time last season when Chestnut went down with an injury but was always surrounded by all those veterans. This year, Hudgins has run the Falcons’ option offense – and an occasional power-I offense – quite well. He’s taken 108 snaps himself, stretched them out to 771 yards, and scored 15 times. He complements Mark Dukes (993 yards rushing) well. And in the limited passing game, Hudgins has completed more than 50 percent of his passes, and exactly one-third of his 21 completions have gone for touchdowns.

“Our biggest surprise has been the emergence of some of our young kids,” Pennypacker said. “We’re playing four or five sophomore at times, and they’ve been a blessing depth-wise at some positions. And I’m not surprised but very pleased with both Hudgins and Dukes, who are both juniors.

“Hudgins is exactly who you want as your quarterback. He’s very smart, plays within himself, and rarely gets rattled. He never gets too high or too low, and plays as he practices every week. That’s all you can ask.”

Pennypacker will be asking for more of the same tonight when Pottsgrove meets the Vikings, a team that may be wobbling a bit with so many injuries but a team that has been anything but a pushover for the Falcons in seasons past.

“I don’t want to hear about how they’re banged up because (head coach Scott Reed) does a great job down there and he’ll have his team on an emotional high for us,” Pennypacker said. “They always give us fits … always.”

The last thing the Falcons need are those fits, especially when considering how hard they worked to fit together a lot of their own pieces to position themselves where they are now.

“When we looked at our schedule in the beginning of the year we were afraid we could be out of everything after the fifth week of the season,” Pennypacker explained. “But our seniors have been great. They’ve known all along what it takes to win, and even though most people counted us out of everything, our seniors didn’t.

“We struggled early, and we’re still not where we want to be or where we need to be to compete in the playoffs. But we’ve made progress. We’ve improved. Now we want to win out, get the (first-round home game) in the playoffs, and make that Thanksgiving Day game between Phoenixville and Spring-Ford mean something.”

* * *

The Falcons have won three in a row and 11 of the last 12 meetings against Perkiomen Valley, with only three of those wins in blowout fashion. … The Vikings got a strong effort last week from their offensive line, featuring center Sean Leary; rotating guards Sean Kilkenny, Robbie Thacker and Austin Gansz; tackles Jeff Morrow and Devin Chou; and tight end Jaime Biddle. … Head coach Scott Reed: “Last week’s win was truly a team win. We had a number of individuals step up on offense, defense and special teams. But Pottsgrove is a very tough opponent, a team that’s big, fast and well-coached.”


The Sideline Week 9

The Sideline Week 8

The Sideline, Week 7

Playoff races heating up a little early

This column originally ran in the Oct. 25 edition of The Mercury

The Pioneer Athletic Conference race is close. The Berks Football League Section One chase is as close if not closer.

And for now, there is little to separate the contenders from the pretenders in the playoff points standings and power ratings.

There isn’t a whole lot of football left to be played, either.

Just two weeks for most teams, or two games that will determine who wins a conference or league title – or puts them in a position to win it (don’t forget Thanksgiving morning’s card) … and just two weeks for five area teams to either seal the postseason deal, or close it out with the annual rally cry of “wait’ll next year.”

For four of the five area teams — Spring-Ford, Pottsgrove and Phoenixville from the PAC-10 and Daniel Boone from the BFL — there is little if any margin for error in their respective drives to a league championship. Some even need help from some others to reach that objective. And all four of those teams, along with Pope John Paul II, can ill-afford a loss this week or next if they’re thinking of retaining a high-and-mighty seed for the postseason (or hoping to get a pass into the postseason to begin with).

Daniel Boone, despite losing its first game of the season last Friday night to visiting Governor Mifflin, has already clinched a spot in the District 3-AAAA playoffs. The Blazers, at No. 1 in the district’s power ratings for two weeks, slipped one spot to No. 2, behind once-beaten Cumberland Valley, following the setback. They need one win to guarantee themselves a Top 8 seeding and first-round game on the home turf.

But they need two wins, neither of which will be easy considering they’re both on the road against Conrad Weiser and bitter rival Exeter – who own identical 7-1 records and share second place with Daniel Boone in the BFL’s Section One standings, all one game behind Governor Mifflin. The Blazers also need additional help – ironically from both Exeter and Conrad Weiser, who line up against Mifflin the next two Friday nights – if they’re to get their hands on no worse than a share of another Section One title.

Nothing like a playoff atmosphere before the playoffs even begin, eh?

The next two weeks will also determine if Spring-Ford can clinch no worse than a tie for its first PAC-10 championship since 1998 and its first playoff appearance ever.

Despite their shutout of Owen J. Roberts last Saturday, the Rams dropped from No. 7 to No. 8 in the District 1-AAAA points standings. There is a bit of a gap between them and No. 9 Henderson, but the Rams could win again this week (at Class AAA Pottstown) and lose more ground depending on how Henderson and others around them fare this weekend against AAAA opposition.

The arithmetic doesn’t get any easier for Phoenixville, Pottsgrove and Pope John Paul II in the Class AAA bracket. Seven of the Top 10 teams in the AAA bracket – including No. 1 Springfield-Delco and No. 2 Marple-Newtown – all lost last weekend. SF-Delco remained at No. 1, but Phoenixville and Pottsgrove are now No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, and Pope John Paul slipped one spot to No. 8.

So Friday night, Phoenixville needs to get by visiting Upper Perkiomen – one of the highest-scoring series in the PAC-10, by the way. And the same goes for Pottsgrove, which must get by host Perkiomen Valley. If both do, there will be a whole heck of a lot on the line when Phoenixville visits Pottsgrove the following week. Phoenixville needs a win and some help to stay in the PAC-10 race through Thanksgiving’s game with the Rams. The Phantoms also need a win to clinch a berth in the AAA playoffs. Pottsgrove, just one game back of Spring-Ford, needs a win (and some of that same help from either Pottstown or Perkiomen Valley) to have any hopes of winning or sharing another PAC-10 title. And, like Phoenixville, the Falcons need a win to clinch yet another berth in the AAA playoffs.

Forget the “ifs” for Pope John Paul, though. There are none. Plain and simple, the Golden Panthers must win both of their last two games – both at home against Boyertown and Upper Perkiomen – to extend their season. Anything less, pending a collapse by everyone above and below them in the points standings, will likely deny them a spot in the eight-team AAA bracket.

* * *

Methacton has plenty to play for over the next three weeks. The Warriors are all even at 4-4 with a chance to finish over .500 for the first time since going 8-3 back in 2000. The Warriors, under second-year head coach Paul Lepre, close with Owen J. Roberts, Pottstown and neighboring Perkiomen Valley. … Pottstown needs to win out for its first winning season since 2002. … Upper Perkiomen also needs to win out to avoid its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1999-2000. … Owen J. Roberts, devastated by graduation when the season kicked off and hurt even more as its inexperienced lineup got hit with injury after injury, needs a win to avoid its worst season since a 1-10 run back in 1995.

* * *

The Hill School resumes its Mid-Atlantic Prep League schedule Saturday afternoon against visiting Blair Academy. The Rams (2-0, 3-3 overall) finish with Hun and Lawrenceville, both at home as well.

Blair is 3-0 (5-1 overall) and playing very well; Hun was playing well until getting upset by Peddie last weekend; and Lawrenceville, well, it doesn’t really seem to matter how the Big Red are playing, at least not until they get together with the Rams in one of the nation’s longest-running and (most unpredictable) football rivalries.


Blazers were ready for stiffest test yet

This column was originally published in the Oct. 21 edition of The Mercury.

One can only wonder if Dave Bodolus, or any of his Daniel Boone players for that matter, may have circled Week Eight on this season’s football calendar.

Maybe just as a reminder of last year’s carnage – or harrowing 42-0 setback to Governor Mifflin – the Blazers’ lone setback of the regular season and one that led to an eventual three-way tie for the Berks Football League Section One title.

Or maybe just to motivate the gang a bit…

“Not really,” Bodolus said earlier this week. “There’s no need to beat a dead horse.”
In other words, the unbeaten Blazers (4-0, 7-0 overall) aren’t looking back, only ahead to tonight’s section showdown with the visiting Mustangs (4-0, 6-1 overall) in a game that – before it kicks off, at least – is so eerily similar to last year’s affair.

“I think some of the kids remember last year a little bit,” Bodolus said. “But I think they learned from it, too. Things just kind of snowballed on us. It got ugly. But that happens every now and then.”
Neither Bodolus nor the Blazers intend on it happening again. Not tonight.

Except for Week Two’s non-league overtime win down at Spring-Ford, Daniel Boone hasn’t really been challenged this season, averaging over 400 yards a game while permitting just over 160 and outscoring its seven opponents by an average spread of 30 points. They have offensive weapons throughout its lineup, all centered around quarterback Tom Bodolus – who leads the area in scoring (17 touchdowns) and rushing (991 yards) while throwing for another 988 yards and 13 touchdowns. Darrell Scott – who ran for 1,517 yards a year ago – has added 607 thus far, but has become equally as productive as a receiver with area-highs of 36 catches for 570 yards and seven touchdowns.

There are other contributors, of course, all of whom are guided by a workhorse offensive line.
The unsung front men are center Rhett Glazer, guards Sean Covatta and Dom Erjavec, tackles Jesse Jones and Zach Robinson, and rotating tight ends Rich Kelemen and Pat Stone.

That group will need to take a stand, or make a statement, because Governor Mifflin’s defense isn’t exactly all that generous. The Mustangs allow just under 217 yards and 14 points a game.
“To be a good football team you have to have a good defense,” Bodolus said. “And I think that’s a reflection of both these teams. Both of us have done well so far this season.”

The Blazers sure have that good defense. They’re situated among the area leaders and are near the top or on top in the BFL against both the run (89 yards) and pass (77), and in scoring defense (10.9 points). No one is playing better on that side of the line than nose guard Zach Robinson, who has already bettered last year’s sack total of seven with an area-high eight to go along with his 45 tackles.
Robinson has gotten a lot of help from those around and behind him, too. The rotating threesome at end features Covatta, Kelemen and Covatta, with Ryan Bologa (39 tackles) and Jesse Orr (35 tackles) the inside linebackers and Ky Gauger and Jesse Kline are the outside linebackers. The outstanding secondary includes Tracey Wright and Scott (three interceptions, two sacks) at the corners, and Bodolus (team-high 47 tackles) and J.D. Okuniewski (two picks) as the safeties.
That defense has yet to surrender a single point in the first quarter, and no more than a touchdown in the second quarter of a game this season.

The Blazers have taken care of the ball, too. Offensively, Bodolus has thrown just one interception, and there have only been five fumbles lost. The defense, meanwhile, has come up with 17 turnovers, leaving the Blazers a very impressive plus-11 in takeaways.

Defense will be needed to slow the Mustangs. Quarterback David Clemens is quite proficient at running (528 yards) and throwing (573) the football. Feature running back Jake Snyder is just one yard ahead of him carrying the ball.

“They’re definitely a run-oriented team,” coach Bodolus said. “They don’t do anything different than we’ve already seen. (Clemens) can throw, too, if he has to.”

The Mustangs are coming off a strange 42-14 rout of winless Twin Valley. Strange in the sense they fumbled the ball six times (losing two) and got hit with 90 yards of penalties. But another strong defensive showing, anchored by Christian Jeznach and Dan Schlegel, was more than enough to offset those shortcomings.

Tonight, though, there’s little margin for error.

“No question this is our toughest game yet,” Bodolus said. “(Governor Mifflin) is the best team we’ll have faced yet this season.”

And it won’t get any easier over the next two weeks either, with trips to contenders Conrad Weiser (4-0, 7-0) and Exeter (3-1, 6-1).

“Our last three games are going to have that playoff atmosphere,” Bodolus said. “Every week from here on in is going to be very tough.”

* * *

Tonight’s game will have a bearing on the District 3-AAAA power ratings as well. Daniel Boone is No. 1 in that category, just ahead of Cumberland Valley (6-1) and No. 3 Governor Mifflin. Bodolus: “Everyone enjoys (the playoffs), but we can’t think about that yet. We’re just concerned with one game at a time.” … Among common opponents this season, Governor Mifflin has rolled up a 173-41 advantage, slightly better than Daniel Boone’s 159-49 advantage. … Conrad Weiser is at Exeter in tonight’s other big BFL game.

* * *

Upper Perkiomen wideout Ron Gillespie and Pope John Paul’s Jacob Gribb are only the sixth and seventh Mercury area players to go over the 1,000-yard receiving mark. With a minimum of three games remaining, PJP teammate Jared Siejk (713) could become the eighth. … Gillespie (1,357 yards) is now fifth all-time, while Gribb (1,063) is seventh. Both, as well as Siejk, would need strong finishes to join a short list of Mercury area receivers with 100 or more career catches. … Daniel Boone’s Tom Bodolus is currently eighth on The Mercury’s all-time total offense (rushing-passing-receiving) chart with 5,288 yards. The next three ahead of him are all Daniel Boone graduates – Chris Bokosky (5,297), Nate Romig (5,534) and former teammate Jon Monteiro (5,443).