Thanks to an earlier-than-normal start to the football season, the District 1 playoff brackets were set before Halloween.
Now, 42 of the 76 District 1 football programs will kick the tires on the PIAA’s second notable preseason change, expanding from four classes to six.
The Ches-Mont league will have nine of its 14 teams in the postseason. Two (Coatesville and Downingtown East) are competing in Class 6A, while seven (Bishop Shanahan, Great Valley, Sun Valley, Unionville, West Chester East, West Chester Henderson and West Chester Rustin) are in 5A.
The road in 6A stayed basically as challenging as in year’s past, with North Penn and Neshaminy at the top once again. Class 5A is much more way open, with no apparent powerhouse during the regular season, and every first-round road team’s record is .500 or below. The National Division was 12-1 against American Division teams this fall, and there are three inter-divisional games in the 5A first round.
Here’s a quick look at why each team in each local matchup could win, Friday, starting with 6A.
No. 4 Coatesville (9-1) vs. No. 13 Abington (6-4)
Why Coatesville can win — The Red Raiders have the most explosive offense in the county, by a long shot. Sophomore running back Aaron Young makes it click, averaging 10.7 yards a carry for the third-highest rushing total (1,123) in the National Division. The running game opens everything up for Coatesville and its freshman quarterback, Ricky Ortega. The talented frosh hasn’t thrown an interception in eight-plus games, using quick, short passes to get speedsters Jadan Hudson, Avery Young and Mekhi Alexander in space. Coatesville’s defense is second in the National, surrendering 13.8 points and 227.5 yards per game. The Red Raiders are plus-seven in the turnover margin, and the offense typically makes opposing offenses take more chances to keep up.
Why Abington can win — The Galloping Ghosts are battle tested, coming from the always-tough Suburban One League. All four of their losses were to playoff teams with a combined record of 36-3. Darryl Davis-McNeil will be a threat to a Coatesville defense that gave up just 87.1 rushing yards a game against league foes. Davis-McNeil averages nearly 200 yards a game on the ground, but did miss the season finale against North Penn. He will need to play and be effective. Abington’s defense will have to sell out to stop Aaron Young and the run game and take its chances with the young Ortega.
No. 6 Downingtown East (8-2) vs. No. 11 Souderton (6-4)
Why Downingtown can win — The Cougars renew a little rivalry with the Indians from a four-year series between 2006-09 that the two teams split, 2-2. East has figured something out offensively since the week seven loss to Coatesville, and it has revolved around getting its best athlete, Jeremy Jennings, touches. Jennings had just seven offensive touches the first seven games, but since, he’s carried the ball 27 times for 334 yards and five TDs, adding eight receptions for 144 yards and another score. He opens things up for Dan Liaudaitis, who led the area with 242 carries and was second with 1,145 rushing yards. Defensively, East was tops in the league in points against (12.7) and yards allowed (212.6) per game. The front four will make it tough sledding for the run-first Indians.
Why Souderton can win — Like Abington, Souderton hails from the Suburban One and has four losses to playoff teams. The Indians’ offense still has its wing-T roots, and Koby Kahn is a big, physical fullback who has ran for 100 yards seven times this season. East has been stingy on defense but it has not been its traditionally opportunistic self this fall. The Cougars have only created 10 turnovers, which is way down from their norm, and they are minus-seven in the turnover ratio. Souderton’s best chance is managing first downs, not allowing big plays and hoping the Cougars’ turnover woes finally catch up to them.
No. 5 West Chester Henderson (7-3) vs. No. 12 Sun Valley (6-4)
Why Henderson can win — CJ Preston was probably licking his chops all week watching film of Sun Valley its past three weeks. The Vanguards gave up an average of 277.3 rushing yards and 37.3 points per game in a three-game losing streak to end the season against WC East, Rustin and Unionville. Preston nearly doubled his ground totals from last year with a league-leading 1,362 yards. The Warriors tried to be more of a passing team, attempting 105 throws through the first six games, but have aired it out just 25 times since, with the trademark running attack averaging over 200 a game. Sun Valley won six of its first seven against teams that finished a combined 16-44, but do not appear to have the same level of physicality as Henderson. The Ryan Brida-led defense was third in the National in points allowed (15.7) and rushing yards against (139.2) per game.
Why Sun Valley can win — The Vanguards have an experienced senior QB, Gabe Boccella, and senior receiver Ishy Ahmad. Boccella has been efficient, throwing for 1,070 yards and 12 TDs with only four interceptions. Ahmad is Boccella’s biggest target, and his 596 receiving yards are the third-highest total in the league. Sun Valley would likely prefer the game get into a shootout with its ability to pass and Henderson’s lackluster air attack. The Warriors are also minus-three in the turnover battle.
No. 6 Unionville (7-3) vs. No. 11 West Chester East (4-6)
Why Unionville can win — The Indians will have the experience advantage as head coach Pat Clark enters his 13th postseason game, while WC East coach Dave Gueriera guided the Vikings to their first postseason trip since 2006. Unionville led the American Division in points (13.5) and rushing yards (119.7) allowed per game, boasting three shutouts. The Vikes’ have been up and down with its run game and has been effective, but not explosive, in the passing game. Offensively, Dante Graham has emerged with 235 rush yards and five TDs the last three games to pair nicely with Jack Adams (596 rush yards, eight TDs) in the Unionville backfield. Joe Zubillaga gives Clark the physical runner from the Qb position he likes to employ, and Alex Gorgone is healthy and mixes in as more of a thrower.
Why WC East can win — This is the first time since ’06 that the Vikings’ defense has held opponents under 25, let alone, 20 points per game. Giving up 16.5 points each contest is good for fourth in the National and the Vikings have two shutouts and are plus-five in turnovers. Junior running back Jared Cooper has had his fair share of big games, tallying 1043 yards on the ground with 10 TDs. In WC East’s six losses it’s averaged just under 100 rush yards, while putting up 174.5 in the four wins. The game will be won in the trenches, as neither team throws overly great, though JD Carroll is a weapon in the passing game that Unionville does not have. Unionville and WC East are separated by one point in offensive scoring, so a race to three scores might do it.
No. 7 Bishop Shanahan (7-3) vs. No. 10 West Chester Rustin (5-5)
Why Shanahan can win — Shanahan has the feel of a 5A contender in the district but got a tough quarter of the bracket. If they can get past Rustin, a very stingy Academy Park, the returning 3A district champs, will likely loom. The Eagles will rely on the experience of senior quarterback, Nick Skulski, the second-highest rated passer in the National. Brendan Dearing leads the National in receptions (38), yards (780) and interceptions (five). The Eagles spread it around, motioning different positions every play and offensively average just under 30 points a game. Rustin has struggled against fast spread offenses, giving up 29 to WC East, 27 to Great Valley, 29 to Kennett and 41 to Coatesville. The Golden Knights are not as strong up front as they have typically been on either side of the ball, and Shanahan has size to go with its athleticism.
Why Rustin can win — The Golden Knights have righted the ship for the most part after starting the season 0-4. They have run for 300 yards or more three times in the final six games, scoring just over 30 points a game in that span. Rustin has played with Ty Pringle and Brandon Frazier in the same backfield just four times this season, but if both are out there and healthy, that is a formidable task to take on. The pair has totaled 1,254 and 18 TDs on the ground. Rustin played seven playoff teams this fall, while Shanahan played five, both teams facing a pair of 6A foes. Shanahan had some of the best defensive numbers the first half of the season, but as the competition has steepened, the Eagles’ defense surrendered 26.4 points per game in the second half. As good as Skulski has been, he is also tied for the third-most interceptions (nine) in the area.
No. 8 Great Valley (6-4) vs. No. 9 Glen Mills (5-5)
Why Great Valley can win — The Patriots will host the Battling Bulls for the second time this season, and have the revenge card after Glen Mills won the first one in punishing fashion, 42-26. The trio of QB Rob Geiss, running back Mark DeRobertis and receiver Ryan Hubley gives Great Valley a chance in most games. Hubley leads the area with 43 catches and 927 yards, Geiss leads the area with 2,176 passing yards and is tied for tops with 18 TD throws and DeRobertis has 1022 total yards and 14 TDs. Since giving up 42 points to the Bulls, Great Valley has held teams under 20 points, on average. The Patriot seniors have been to the past two district title games, winning in 2014, so the moment will likely not be too big for them.
Why Glen Mills can win — Junior running back Quadir Gibson had a monster game the first contest, running for 176 of the 350 yards on the ground for Glen Mills. He will garner plenty of attention, but the strategy should stay the same for the Bulls. Great Valley has allowed an average of 323 rush yards and 106 of 181 points, defensively, in its four losses. Glen Mills doesn’t throw a ton, but if it can find enough to keep the Pats from loading the box every play, running lanes will be there.