Wirant Orthodontics Gridiron - Playoff Version

Downingtown East crushes Spring-Ford in District 1-6A opener

By Rob Senior

ROYERSFORD >> The inclement weather at McNelly Stadium played directly into the hands of Downingtown East. But not in the way observers might have expected.
 
The Cougars, known for their punishing running game (averaging 250 yards per contest), broke out a no-huddle offense that moved at breakneck speed — something they hadn’t put on tape all season.
 
“The weather definitely helped us,” said Downingtown East coach Michael Matta. “We pride ourselves on running the ball and stopping the run.”
 
The 10th-seeded Cougars followed that precise recipe, accumulating 349 yards on the ground on an eye-popping 75 carries, in throttling No. 7 Spring-Ford 39-12 and advancing to the District 1 Class 6A quarterfinals.
 
 
Spring-Ford’s Stephen Brill rushes to the outside against Downingtown East. (MJ McConney – For Digital First Media
 
Zach Hamilton ran for 194 yards and three TDs as the Cougars took advantage of four first-half turnovers in building a 25-0 lead before Spring-Ford could get on the board.
 
His backfield mate Garvey Jonassaint, the Ches-Mont’s leading rusher, chipped in with another 124 yards on the evening and a score of his own.
 
The idea of 124 yards rushing constituting a description of “chipping in” speaks to the pure dominance of the Cougars, who brought out a new, up-tempo attack and had their way most of the night.
 
“These games are won in the weight room,” said Hamilton, echoing Coach Matta’s sentiments.
 
“Everybody wants to win out here tonight,” Matta added. “But not everybody is willing to do what it takes in January to get here.”
 
Downingtown East, now 9-2, moves onto a rematch with No. 2 Coatesville, a winner over Central Bucks East on Friday night. The Cougars fell to Coatesville, 42-7, just last week.
 
“We can beat them,” Matta emphasized. “We’ll need to get some breaks, take better care of the football.
 
“But we’re not afraid of them. Everybody else seems to be; we are not afraid of them.”
 
For Spring-Ford, the season comes to an end with a record of 8-3.
 
“We can’t make any excuses,” lamented Spring-Ford’s coach Chad Brubaker. “Too many times, things get away from us when we freelance.”
 
The first quarter featured some big gambles on both sides, as Downingtown East went for a first down on 4th and short at their own 10-yard line, but were stuffed by the SF defensive line. But the golden opportunity went for naught as Spring-Ford fumbled on a reverse, giving it back to East at the Downingtown 33.
 
The Cougars effectively ran a no-huddle for 14 plays in only about 2:30 of game time, and seemed poised to take the lead when another fumble led to a touchback.
 
But early in the second quarter, the Cougars cashed in what was already the game’s fifth turnover when Stan Bryant picked off Ryan Engro and returned the ball 47 yards down the left sideline for a 7-0 Cougars lead.
 
The ensuing kickoff was coughed up by the Rams, and three bruising Hamilton carries later, the Downingtown East lead was 13-0 early in the second quarter.
 
Hamilton, who regularly churned out an extra 2-3 yards after meeting first contact, moved with in 25 yards of the 1,000-yard mark himself for the season.
 
After another Spring-Ford drive stalled, a low snap to the punter gave D-East the ball at the SF 30. Again, it was Hamilton doing the dirty work, finishing off the drive from nine yards out to give the Cougars a 19-0 advantage.
 
Spring-Ford drove deep into East territory right before the break, but ran out of time on the one-yard line, just as a momentum-changing TD looked certain.
 
The Rams never recovered. After the break, East picked up right where they left off, going 74 yards in 14 plays and just over three minutes before Jonassaint’s six-yard scoring run made it 25-0.
 
“I don’t think the weather had too much to do with (the outcome),” said Jonassaint. “We were going to come out and run the football no matter what.”
 
The Rams would get on the board early in the fourth quarter when Engro found BJ Beard for a 10-yard touchdown. However, the Cougars responded with an 11-play, 53-yard drive with Luke Davis finding Matt Harootunian for a 5-yard score to widen the lead to 32-6.
 
Juniors Engro and Dante Bonanni had big nights in the losing effort for Spring-Ford. Engro threw for 302 yards, 202 of them to Bonanni, whose yardage total and 12 receptions accounted for PAC season highs. Their 82-yard connection with seven minutes to play would bring the Rams within three scores.
 
But it was Hamilton, capping his night with a powerful 24-yard run to widen the lead once again, this time to the final margin of 39-12.
 
Now the Cougars move onto to face the District and perhaps state favorites in the Red Raiders of Coatesville. Matta’s emphasis on not fearing the heavy favorites resonates with his pair of senior running backs.
 
“We came out tonight and exerted our will, ran it down their throats,” said Jonassaint. “We will have the same exact mentality next week.”

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Playoffs Begin!

Week 10 Gridiron Sponsored by Wirant Orthodontics

PAC’s Frontier Division continues its rise with strong showing in crossover play

When Don Grinstead left his head coaching position at Pottstown High School in 2015, the idea of the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s ‘crossover week’ was just coming into formation.
 
“Back then, everybody was playing everybody,” he recalled. “And the frustration among the ‘small schools’ was as simple as depth. We’re fielding rosters of between 35-45 players, and the big schools had so much more depth due of the sheer size of their schools.”
 
Grinstead wasn’t alone in this feeling. The school of thought led to the creation of divisions within the PAC. This past weekend, the ‘small-school’ Frontier Division — featuring Grinstead’s new charges, the Phoenixville Phantoms, who topped Methacton 14-7 — gained quite a feather in their cap, winning four of six games during the third annual ‘crossover week.’
 
When Grinstead returned this winter to take over at Phoenixville, he walked back into an entirely new PAC. In 2016, the conference added two schools — Norristown and Upper Merion — who fell into different classifications in the state’s new system that grouped schools, based on enrollment, from Class A to Class 6A. The additions left the PAC with 12 schools — six in Class 6A; six that fell anywhere from 3A to 5A.
 
Thus the league was divided into two divisions. The Liberty Division would host the ‘big’ 6A schools, while the Frontier Division would be home to the ‘small’ 3A, 4A and 5A schools. PAC teams would play a round-robin against their own division, then conclude the regular season with a crossover game against their competitive counterpart from the opposing division (first-place Liberty plays first-place Frontier, second-place Liberty plays second-place Frontier, and so on).
 
The 2016 and 2017 seasons weren’t particularly kind to the Frontier Division, as the big schools rolled up a cumulative 11-1 record in the crossover matchups, including Perkiomen Valley’s two PAC championship victories.
 
But while the Vikings claimed a third consecutive title this past Friday in their win over Pottsgrove, the rest of the Frontier Division put some icing on the cake for their 2018 regular season, winning four of the other five matchups. What’s more, five of the Frontier Division’s six schools qualified for the postseason in their respective classifications.
 
“I thought this week was our offensive line’s best performance this season,” said Pottstown head coach Mark Fischer after his squad’s come-from-behind 19-14 win over Norristown that gave the Trojans their first district berth since the new system was enacted. “It showed the effort and determination of our players.”
 
In perhaps the most competitive of the games, Upper Merion cemented its 5A playoff berth — and earned a first-round home game — by avenging a regular-season loss to Owen J. Roberts with a 29-27 victory. Meanwhile the Wildcats finished their season at 6-4 with the heartbreaking distinction of being the No. 17 team in a 6A field that accommodates 16 teams for district playoffs.
 
“We were down early, but our kids fight,” said UM coach Victor Brown. “They are so resilient, and that’s how you win games against tough opponents.”
 
Upper Perkiomen also avenged a regular-season loss to Boyertown with a resounding 35-8 victory Friday night in Red Hill. But the Indians’ coach didn’t allow the victory to color his overall feelings.
 
“After the way we lost to Boyertown to start the year, it was a real boost for us to end the season with a win against them,” said Tom Hontz.
 
“But I think our (Frontier Division) elite teams are still behind the (Liberty Division’s) upper-echelon teams, and when I look at what happened with OJR — this year’s crossover games were kind of detrimental to some of our conference’s playoff hopes.”
 
For the Frontier schools, while crossover week provides an opportunity to see how they measure up with the ‘big boys,’ the new system more importantly allows for an even playing field throughout the regular season, and an opportunity to compete for district playoff standing against opponents with similar depth and roster size.
 
“The hardest part for me,” said Grinstead, remembering back to the pre-divisional format days, “was we’d play 4—5 big schools within a six-week span. It’s hard to overcome the amount of wear and tear that puts on a small roster.
 
“So by the time we got around to playing like-sized schools, we were never fully healthy.”
 
But what about the Liberty Division? Obviously, the playoff push reaches a fever pitch in the final week of the regular season, so the larger schools are at an automatic disadvantage when playing non-6A opponents, due to the reduced number of win points teams receive from playing schools in lower classifications. Does the new tradition offer any benefits to mitigate that sacrifice?
 
“When we originally went to two divisions, the concept was to go out and schedule non-division games outside the league, hopefully win some games and thereby bring playoff points into the league,” said Chad Brubaker, head coach of Spring-Ford. Brubaker’s Rams were one of two Liberty Division teams to claim a Week 10 victory, topping Pope John Paul II, 42-21.
 
“Once the divisions happened, some schools chose to schedule teams from the other division in the name of tradition or rivalries, etc. I’ve always felt it should be one or the other. We’ve had numerous (rematch) games over the past few years, which hurts everyone on the cusp of going to the playoffs.”
 
Brubaker said he does take the crossover into consideration when making non-league scheduling decisions, especially since the aspect of playoff points is magnified in the final week of the regular season. But does he feel that Spring-Ford and other 6A schools are hurt by the “pick on someone your own size” stigma?
 
“You have to beat the team on your schedule,” he emphasized.
 
And in the end, that one factor matters than any divisional scoreboard. Crossover Week was never meant to be a referendum on which is the stronger division. If that were the idea, no single data point would outweigh the fact that Perkiomen Valley—a Liberty Division squad—claimed the PAC title for the third time in as many years as the two-division format has been in place. But taken as a whole, there are clear benefits to dividing the league into two divisions and allowing like-sized schools to play one another—both for the sake of playoff points and competitiveness.
 
“I don’t know if the (Frontier Division’s) 4-2 record this year is a definitive statement of ‘see, this works!’” Grinstead concluded. “But I do believe playing the crossover at the end—essentially, a one-game season—makes it more favorable for all of us.”
 
Offensive Player of the Week >> Ryan Engro tied TJ Pergine’s single-season record for TD passes thrown in a season at Spring-Ford as he threw for four more scores in the Rams’ 42-21 win over Pope John Paul II.
Engro’s next TD toss will give him sole possession of the single-season record. He currently stands at 27 TD passes in 2018, tied with PJP’s Kamal Gray for the PAC lead.

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Downingtown East vs. Spring-Ford

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