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Mahalik rewards Penncrest line with monster game

LOWER MERION >> On days like Saturday, the Penncrest offensive linemen can’t help but crack a grin when talking about Caleb Mahalik.

The big guys up front do the dirty work, and Mahalik’s blend of that dose of team effort with his imperviousness to tacklers can yield special performances like Saturday’s 54-15 win over Lower Merion.

Mahalik was the headliner with a gaudy stat line: 27 carries, 251 yards, five touchdowns.

“I love blocking for him,” lineman Mike Wilson said. “He always gets good yardage. Whenever he’s in, you just know he’s going to make a big play. Seeing him run down the field, there’s nothing better than that.”

But with all due respect to the junior, the prolific Penncrest running attack that tallied 469 yards on 46 carries owed to more than any one person. That’s how reserves like Kasta Pahides (four carries, 35 yards) and sophomore Vincent Brown (seven for 82) enter late in games, tally touchdowns and continue the roughshod running.

All those yards churned out a blitz of 48 consecutive points after a scoreless first quarter and Lower Merion (2-7, 0-6 Central) opening the scoring on the first snap of the second. From the 6 minute, 37 second mark of the second quarter, on Mahalik’s first score from one yard out, to Pahides’ one-yard dive on the first snap of the fourth quarter, the Lions (3-6, 2-6) pushed the ball across the goal line seven times in 19 minutes.

“I think upfront, when we get our blocks right consistently, having him get through the hole, he just goes from there,” Wilson said of Mahalik.

The early plan was simple enough, targeting Lower Merion’s undersized line with the hulking duo of James George and Bryan Dewar, with Michael Goolsby on the other side. It was a case of dialing up the same plays until Lower Merion proved it could stop it. The Aces never did.

“The left side of our line, James and Dewar, just kept blowing them back every time,” Mahalik said. “So the iso up the middle was getting me at least five yards every time.”

“We ran the same three plays every time, and the plays kept working,” George said, “so we kept running them.”

The final rushing tally is a portrait of consistency, not skewed by a monstrous gain here or there. The longest carry of the day was a 31-yard burst from Mahalik. Only two of the 46 carries were stopped for loss or no gain, and more than half of Penncrest’s carries (27) gained six or more yards, summing to that 10.2 yards-per-carry average.

They mixed it up adeptly, using John Cosgrove and Pahides to bulldoze between the tackles and tossing Mark Ullman a pair of reverses that covered 53 yards total.

Ullman also caught a touchdown pass from Chris Mills, a 19-yard wheel route with 1:13 left in the first half to cap a 230-yard outburst in the first frame.

Mahalik ran for scores of one and five yards in the first. He carried tacklers into the end zone on a three-yarder early in the third quarter, then bursts of 15 and 20 yards ended his work early.

Lower Merion, meanwhile, got nothing going on the ground with a scant 11 yards on 16 carries. That was fine when quarterback Matt O’Connor hit on six of his first 11 passes for 129 yards in the first quarter-plus, the last completion a 32-yard scoring strike to Rashon Cooke. The lone early blemish was an interception in the end zone grabbed by Shane Jones on fourth-and-10 from the 16.

But Penncrest adjusted, holding O’Connor to just five completions on his final 18 attempts.

“I think they gave us the same look most of the time,” O’Connor said. “I just think we needed to execute.”

“We just had to get focused, play as a team, and once the first score was in, we got it in our heads that we can’t let that happen,” Wilson said. “We got it together there, played well, got some three-and-outs and played defense like we usually do.”

O’Connor threw for 204 yards, 93 on three hookups with Cooke, whom he found for a 55-yard go route down the sideline to set up a six-yard connection between the duo in the fourth.

But Penncrest had no intention of allowing the Aces to make the game interesting after halftime. Even through a difficult start to the season, the Lions have kept an eye on the District 1 5A power rankings. They entered the weekend 20th, but then watched five of the six teams immediately ahead of them in the standings lose. That includes next week’s opponent Radnor, which entered 14th.

The breaks have to keep going Penncrest’s way for them to crack the top 16, but the standings offer something to play for in the final weeks of the season, as the Lions showed Saturday.

“We knew we were out of the playoffs right now, but still reaching to get back into the push,” Wilson said. “We knew this game and next week’s game, it really counts for getting into the playoffs…

“Once you get to playoffs, every game is a new game. It doesn’t matter where you’re ranked.”

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