EAST MARLBOROUGH >> With tears running down his cheek, emotional head coach Dave Gueriera hugged every single player on the West Chester East football roster.
Moments earlier, his Vikings had capped a valorous game-winning drive with a last minute 27-yard Jake Bonnett field goal to edge host Unionville, 10-7, in the opening round of the District 1 Class 5A Playoffs. It not only put an end to a painful three-game losing skid to end the regular season, it also gave West Chester East its first postseason victory in a decade.
“It’s been a tough week,” said Gueriera, wiping his eyes. “We’ve lost some tough, tough games, and I just … love these guys.
“This is monumental. It’s been a 10-year playoff drought.”
The come-from-behind triumph sets up a second round clash with third-seeded Marple Newtown, who topped Upper Moreland, 35-7. The 11th-seeded Vikings are now 5-6 on the season.
“We were blessed just to get into the playoffs to begin with,” said star runner Jared Cooper. “So to come out and win, and show everybody who we are and what we can do, it feels amazing.”
For the sixth-seeded Indians, it was a bitter way to end the season. Unionville (7-4 overall) entered the day with a five-game winning streak.
“Playoff football is like this,” Unionville head coach Pat Clark said. “I told our kids it would be back and forth, and this result it tough to swallow.
“We don’t have any Division I superstars, but our seniors care so much and I feel bad for them. They have given so much to the program and I wish we could have figured out a way to get it done.”
It was the battle of suffocating defenses, and both sides wound up with just 349 yards combined. But somehow, someway, West Chester East was able to muster a long, sustained game-winning drive that ate up nearly eight minutes on the clock, took 17-plays and covered 70 yards. And the Vikings did it with time running out against one of the Ches-Mont’s premier defenses.
“You have to compliment (East) on the fact that they went 17 plays without making a mistake,” Clark said.
“I think we were building toward that,” Gueriera added.
Along the way, the Viking converted had several crucial third down conversions, and a huge fourth down one, when Cooper picked it up near midfield. With time running out, East attempted to center the football for Bonnett, a senior who specializes in soccer and made his football debut this season. But Cooper bounced the play to the outside, leaving Bonnett with a tough angle.
“We did try to center it, but Coop took it wide,” Gueriera acknowledged. “But it’s hard to fault Coop because he is such an unbelievable athlete, he could have scored on it.”
Following a pair of Unionville timeouts, designed to freeze him, Bonnett calmly booted the 27-yarder with 9.1 seconds remaining on the clock.
“It’s my first time playing football, and they called two timeouts, so I was a little bit nervous,” Bonnett said of the game winner that equaled the longest of his brief career. “But it was a great opportunity to help this team.”
The finish was all the more impressive when you consider that the Indians defense held the Vikings in check for most of the evening. Cooper finished with 99 of his 115 rushing yards in the second half.
“Unionville is a great program, but we’ve been saying all week that this is our second season,” Gueriera said. “We had some tough ones in our first season: last-second losses against rivals, so it was a good chance to get a clean slate.”
After managing just one first down and 31 yards of total offense in the first half, West Chester East roared into the second half to quickly knot the score at 7-7. It started with a 24-yard kickoff return by freshman Kyle Cichanowsky, and ended two plays later with Cooper going 35-yards on a burst up the middle.
“We got an earful at halftime, so we had to come out stronger,” Cooper said.
“We challenged our offensive line, and they responded,” Gueriera added.
“They came out with a little intensity and we didn’t match it,” Clark pointed out.
Each team threatened the end the deadlock with a field goal immediately following an interception in the third quarter. East’s Devin Williams picked off a pass, but moments later Bonnett’s 29-yarder was blocked by Unionville’s Trevor Gardiner. And a Jesse Gill interception led to a 36-yarder by the Indians’ Matthew Mainwaring, but the kick was short.
Even though the Indians had a clear edge in yards, first downs and field position in the first half, they didn’t score the game’s first points until the final 73 seconds of the first half, when Jack Adams broke off a 20-yard scoring run.
Unionville had two other prime first half scoring chances, but one was halted by an interception by East’s Mike Salloum. And the half ended before the Indians could fully take advantage of a blocked punt by Gardiner.
“I can’t fault my kids’ execution and effort. It was back and forth and they had the ball last,” Clark said.
“We won it for coach (Gueriera),” Cooper added. “He’s always believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.”