By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
WEST GOSHEN — For three-plus decades prior to the opening of Rustin High School in 2006, the Henderson-East football clash was the championship of the West Chester School District. But because the Warriors and Vikings topped the Golden Knights earlier this season, Friday’s regular season finale from Zimmerman Stadium was a blast from the past.
And just a year removed from a one-win season, Henderson pulled out a 17-10 decision to complete a 7-3 campaign and earn what is expected to be a home game for the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs.
“I think we will certainly have a home game, so hopefully we will be able to use that to our advantage,” Warriors’ head coach Steve Mitten acknowledged.
“We came into the season with three objectives: win the league, win West Chester and make the playoffs,” added Henderson star runner C.J. Preston. “We didn’t get the first one, but we accomplished the other two tonight.”
In all, Henderson scored 17 unanswered points, but the big difference came on special team’s midway through the fourth quarter. Knotted in a 10-10 tie, East’s Kyle Cichanowsky mishandled a punt and the loose ball was recovered by senior Kyle McTiernan at the Warriors’ four yard line.
Two plays later, Henderson quarterback Joe Saulino scored from a yard out with 6:06 on the clock.
“It was the difference in the game,” Mitten said.
“(McTiernan) is a senior who had played and worked hard. He is the president of his class and he had an outstanding game. I can’t say enough about him. He put us on a position to ice the game.”
As expected, it was a defensive slugfest between rival programs that have been mirror-images of each other this fall. Both sides boast stout defenses, and both have a dynamic junior runner. Preston rolled up 170 yards on the ground and scored on an electrifying 74-yard run on Friday, while the Vikings’ Jared Cooper responded with 169 yards and a TD.
“Preston is a tough back,” said East head coach Dave Gueriera.
“Every time they handed the ball to (Cooper) we held our breath because he can take it the route,” Mitten added.
“Dave (Gueriera) and I were saying before the game just how similar our teams are in size and number. That’s a well-coached, talented team over there (at East). We made some incredible plays on special teams and defense, and got just enough offense. We are fortunate to come out of here with a win.”
Henderson ends the regular season with a four-game winning streak and finishes 3-3 in the Ches-Mont National. The Vikings fall to 1-5 in the league (4-6 overall), but are still expected to slip into the postseason.
“I think we are going to get in but we are going to be on the road for sure,” Gueriera said. “I’m not sure we deserve it right now, but we will go back to the drawing board.”
Preston and Cooper each reeled off a couple runs of 30-plus yards, and each accounted for the vast majority of their team’s offensive production. Other than that, the defenses were dominant.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and our defense came up huge,” Preston said.
“Our defense bailed us out all game and they’ve done that all season,” Guereria added. “The story all season has been trying to move the ball and get points on the board. We are not doing a good job with that right now.”
Trailing 7-0 at the half, the Warriors quickly tied it up on Preston’s long run early in the second half. It came moments after senior linebacker Ryan Brida picked off a pass by East quarterback Johnathan Thompson.
“When you have a talent like (Preston), it’s like the saying: ‘you have to dance with the one that brung ya,’” Mitten said. “He’s had close to 1,300 yards rushing and it’s a testament to the work he’s put in and our offensive line.”
The Viking dodged a bullet moments later following another Thompson pick when Saulino fumbled at the goal line. But on the next series, Henderson’s Nick Mascetti picked off another Thompson throw, and the Warriors upped the lead to 10-7 following a 32-yard Bryce McElhiney field goal.
Early in the final quarter, East overcame four penalties in one possession to get the equalizer – a 28-yard field goal by Jake Bonnett with 10:16 remaining. But McTiernan’s special team’s gem came soon thereafter.
“I knew it was going to be a close, tough game,” Gueriera said. “But I didn’t expect all of the mistakes on our side. We self-destructed and it killed us. You can’t commit four turnovers and a bunch of penalties. It was undisciplined and not the way we want to play Viking football.”
Despite all of the problems, East still had an opportunity to tie it. Thanks to big third down receptions from Cooper and J.D. Carroll, the Vikings marched into Henderson territory only to turn it over on downs at the 41.
“We still had six minutes to go with the ball, we go all the way down the field and we can’t convert it,” Gueriera lamented.
The lone score of the first half came courtesy of Cooper, who ripped off a 32-yarder to set up his own 2-yard scoring plunge late in the first half. The Vikings had another Cooper TD — a 68-yard punt return — negated by a penalty. And even though the return went for 51 yards, the illegal block proved costly as East wound up turning it over on downs at the Henderson 11.
The Warriors had one prime scoring chance in the first half after a 32-yard run by C. J. Preston, but the Vikings ended the threat when Chris Cassidy picked off a Saulino pass that was tipped by a Henderson receiver.
“We came back from a 1-9 season last year, and we are not done yet,” Preston said.