NETHER PROVIDENCE >> There is no code, no plan, no process to ensure an undefeated football season. There is, though, one reality.
Along the way, the sport itself will provide its own sinister trials.
So it was Friday night for Springfield, which improved to 7-0 overall and 6-0 in the Central League with a 20-7 victory at Strath Haven, in what was a two-plus-hour presentation of traps, tricks and other football headaches.
It’s why Springfield wandered into the fourth quarter with just a 10-0 lead despite a lopsided advantage in the statistical measurables. And it’s why Cougars coach Chris Britton was aware of one challenge that somehow escaped his players. That was the last game, an overtime survival at Ridley, a signature moment in a classic setting.
“No,” said Cougars defensive back Gregory Tamaccio.
Not even the possibility?
“I was worried a lot,” Britton said, “about a letdown.”
So the coaches worried and the players played and the Cougars stayed perfect on a night when they were penalized 10 times for 80 yards, including once deep in Springfield territory to complicate a field-goal attempt, when they threw an interception, lost a fumble and saw the Panthers’ Hunter Mazur return a fourth-quarter kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown.
And while Strath Haven dipped to 3-4 overall and 3-3 in the Central, it’s what can happen on that storied field on any particular autumn night.
“This wasn’t a small game after that last one,” Britton said. “We thought this was going to be a big game, right there with everyone else. And knowing that they were that good, it made it easier that we weren’t going to have a letdown.”
Ultimately, the Cougars survived, finally silencing Strath Haven when Tamaccio made his second interception of the game with 3 minutes, 6 seconds to play and enough of the timeout-remaining edge to control the clock.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” Britton said. “But I think when you’re off, you’re still on. It’s an off night. We have a lot of stuff to work on. We messed up a lot. But we still think we beat a really good team. So if we can walk out of here, I’ll take it.”
The Cougars benefited from a Strath Haven mistake at the end of the first half, the Panthers drawing a personal foul after a pass from Johnny Fanelli to Tamaccio. That allowed Jack Coary to kick an untimed-down field goal from 24 yards, good for a 10-0 lead.
By then, Springfield had a 7-0 advantage on a 71-yard second-quarter touchdown pass from Fanelli to Joe Kennedy. And by then, it might already have been growing clear: The big plays were going to make the difference. So, another one did, with 4:53 left. That’s when Philip Shovlin charged into and out of a crowd and broke away for a 42-yard scoring run. Coary, who’d added a 42-yard field goal earlier in the quarter, added the PAT and the Cougars were ahead, 20-0.
“We had great success in running counter the whole night,” said Shovlin, who rushed for 145 yards. “Me and Ja’Den (McKenzie) were hitting it hard, getting five, six yards a play. And on that play, the safety blitzed right up the middle, so I was wide open. Alex Pinto had the kick-out block, and I was wide open. So I just took it.
“This was probably the hardest game we played so far. They put up a fight. They are a great team. And we never come in under-estimating anyone.”
As it would occur, the struggle intensified seconds later when Mazur returned the ensuing kickoff to pull Strath Haven within 20-7. The Panthers then forced a Springfield punt. But Tamaccio’s interception eased the drama.
“I was really proud of the kids,” Strath Haven coach Kevin Clancy said. “Springfield is a good football team. They are a well-coached team, a very good defensive team. I thought our kids hung in and gave us chances all the way into the second half. So that’s a starting point to try to build something. I think we should be proud of the kids and go back to work Monday, turn the page and move from there. But I tell you, I was proud of their effort.”
Fanelli completed 12 of 21 passes for 231 yards, 147 to Kennedy. McKenzie and Shovlin combined for 225 rushing yards. And Springfield did move the ball. But on a night of challenges, the defense remained constant.
“Our d-line played awesome,” Tamaccio said. “They put pressure on the quarterback the whole night. Our outside backers played great.”
Next for the unbeaten Cougars: Penncrest, at home.
“Strath Haven played great, and it was a great ballgame,” Tamaccio said. “We have a long way to go. We had our troubles. But we have another game next week. That’s what we’re focused on.”
And when do the Cougars begin to think about an undefeated season?
“We don’t,” Britton said. “We just think about next week.”