UPPER DUBLIN >> West Chester Henderson coach Steve Mitten never had a doubt.
Despite the strong winds gusting through Upper Dublin High School’s Cardinal Stadium, the Warriors called on senior kicker Bryce McElhiney from 30 yards away with three minutes left in a tie game.
Junior quarterback Joe Saulino placed down the high snap, McElhiney gathered himself after a studder step and sent the ball through the uprights to give No. 5 seed WC Henderson a 17-14 lead that would hold up as the final score in the PIAA District 1 Class-5A quarterfinals against No. 4 seed Upper Dublin Friday night.
“We’ve had field goals win the game for us by Bryce McElhiney week after week after week going all the way back to the first week against Oxford,” Mitten said.
The field goal was set up by junior Kavond Jones blocking a punt.
Henderson took over at Upper Dublin’s 20-yard line. After three plays and an attempt to draw the Cardinals offsides on fourth-and-two, Mitten sent his kicker onto the field.
“Special teams are a third of the game,” Upper Dublin coach Bret Stover said. “We knew they were coming. We practiced it. Hat off to them, they made the play. We held and the kid made a nice field goal. We lost two games on two field goals on this field this year. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s disappointing, obviously.”
The Cardinals had the ball twice after the Warriors took the lead, but couldn’t get anything going. They were stopped short of the sticks on fourth down on their first possession and only legitimate chance to put together a drive. The second time they had the ball there was less than 20 seconds left in the game and they had no timeouts.
Upper Dublin’s offense spent most of the game trying to figure out the WC Henderson defense. Quarterback Justin Horn went 12-for-21 for 76 yards and an interception. Malik Bootman was the leading rusher with 61 yards on seven carries.
“(Henderson’s) guys up front really kind of owned us up front — in the first half for sure,” Stover said. “They’re quick. They’re not overly big, but what they do, they do well. It was a great scheme by their defensive coordinator.”
“Our defense is built to play physical,” Mitten said. “We wanted to come in and play physical Warrior football. We found that playing physical defense and playing tough and grinding it out on offense and playing great special teams has been the winning formula around here for a long time … Play great defense, play great special teams and get just enough offense. That’s a pretty good formula.”
Both of the Cardinals touchdowns tied the game.
Horn evened the score at 14 with 8:34 remaining in the game. He went right up the middle on a quarterback keeper and raced 28 yards to the end zone.
They scored their first points of the game and tied the game at seven with just 20 seconds left in the third quarter. On a fourth-and-one from the Henderson six-yard line, Michael Cottom cut to the right and weaved his way into the end zone to get the Cardinals on the board.
On the very first play of the Warriors ensuing possession, running back CJ Preston took a carry up the middle, shrugged off multiple defenders and went 80 yards to put his side back on top.
“We were doing another option play,” Preston said. “I saw the hole open up on the left side. I cut it back, broke a couple tackles and I just saw green grass.”
Preston finished the game with 22 carries for 136 yards.
The Warriors scored the first points of the game with 1:52 left in the first half. On fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, Saulino took the snap and forced his way into the end zone.
WC Henderson will face No. 1 seeded Springfield (Delco) in the semifinals next week.
Upper Dublin’s season — one in which it won a share of the Suburban One League American Conference title — comes to an end.
Top Photo: Wester Chester Henderson quarterback Joe Saulino runs the ball against Upper Dublin during their District 1-5A quarterfinal on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. (Debby High/For Digital First Media)