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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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

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.”



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