ROYERSFORD >> It’s been an up-and-down season for Pope John Paul II, but the Panthers hit their homecoming field sky-high for Pioneer Athletic Conference-Frontier Division rival Pottsgrove. And though things started out a bit flat for the Panthers, it ended with a big-time emotional high.
They had circled this game on the calendar months ago, knowing the Falcons are their measuring stick in the Frontier. And after coming from behind on a windy, chilly pre-winter afternoon, the Panthers, leading by a touchdown, had to measure up one more time as the Falcons had a fourth-and-one at the PJP 9-yard line, 31 seconds left in regulation.
Pottsgrove quarterback Ryan Finn, who had marched the Falcons in a nice two-minute drill with a mix of short passes, tried running outside left but found no room. PJP seniors Nick Yerger and James Butler led the swarm to pull down Finn short of a first down. The Panther offense ran out the clock for an 18-12 victory and joined a big celebration with their fans.
“The biggest thing was, we finally believed,” Yerger said. “I feel as though every other team that went against Pottsgrove was afraid of the team ‘Pottsgrove’. But we played our game and we weren’t afraid. We believed in ourselves.”
“We’ve talked about this in January,” said PJP coach Rory Graver. “It’s a wonderful thing to beat Pottsgrove because they’re usually the best team in the league. These kids just fight and fight. I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”
The Panther defense did a bang-up job containing explosive Pottsgrove running back Rahsul Faison. Though he did break a 76-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Faison gained only 65 yards on his other 22 carries, less than 3 per attempt.
“We knew to stop Pottsgrove we had to force them to pass,” said Graver. “Our defense played a great game.”
Worse for Pottsgrove, Faison barely outran their penalty yards. They were flagged 12 times for a very costly 135 yards — 111 in the first half. Several were for personal fouls and pass interference – seven big 15-yarders in all.
It was a deflating though not debilitating loss for Frontier champ Pottsgrove, which suffered its first league defeat (now 4-1, 6-3 overall) and faces Liberty champ Perkiomen Valley next Friday for the conference title. First, there’s a lot of work to do for Pottsgrove, and coach Rick Pennypacker was livid about how his team played. And angry with himself. The game meant everything to PJP, and Pennypacker indicated that his team performed as if the game meant nothing to them, which mathematically it did not.
“I think that was a horrific effort by my players and myself,” Pennypacker said. “More myself than my kids. It was a game that didn’t mean anything to us. It was kind of hard for me to understand why we played the way we did. But hey, you can’t have personal fouls and undisciplined acts like we did and think you’re going to win.
“Give credit to PJP and Rory and his staff. They did a great job. But that’s good for my kids. They needed to get their butts kicked, to get woken up, because they’ve been a little lackadaisical the last couple of weeks.”
PJP could muster only 14 yards rushing but threw caution to the 40-mile-per-hour winds with junior quarterback Matt DeLaurentis completing 19-of-34 for 216 yards and two touchdowns. Junior running back Dan Cirino led the big-play brigade, catching 7 passes for 125 yards and taking a short toss in the flat 69 yards down the sideline for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:39 left in the third quarter.
The Panther O-line did a nice job giving DeLaurentis time, and on other occasions DeLaurentis was impressive buying time. Sophomore CJ McCafferty came up big as well with 56 yards on six receptions.
“They kept blitzing, so we knew they were playing man on the outside against our receivers, and we felt we had better matchups,” DeLaurentis said.
PJP’s offense started slowly, getting just one first down the first 16 minutes. Pottsgrove had grabbed a 12-0 lead on Faison’s long run about four minutes into the second quarter. But on the next PJP possession, DeLaurentis sparked the momentum shift. On third-and-18 he found Cirino for 27 yards. On fourth-and-one Pottsgrove got penalized for offside and an unsportsmanlike conduct, putting the Panthers in position for DeLaurentis’ 14-yard scoring pass to Ryan Kormos.
Then the Panthers recovered an onside kick, which was aided with another 15-yard flag on the Falcons. Setting up at the Pottsgrove 17, the Panthers tied it at 12, with 2:52 left in the half, on DeLaurentis’ 7-yard scramble. The play before, on fourth-and-one, he avoided a sack and hit McCafferty for nine yards.
“In the beginning our offense started slow, but we kept believing in the game plan and what we had to do, and it started working,” DeLaurentis said.