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Kennedy, stingy Springfield soar to District 1 final

SPRINGFIELD >> When two defenses the caliber of West Chester Henderson and Springfield collide, it can take just one play to make a game-breaking difference.

Friday night, Joe Kennedy provided about a half-dozen. In his wake, the Springfield wide receiver left the Warriors utterly and completely defeated.

Kennedy caught 10 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns, plus he contributed to a peerless defensive performance as the top-seeded Cougars booked a spot in the District 1 Class 5A final with a 21-0 domination of Henderson.

Springfield's Joe Kennedy fights to escape the grasp of West Chester Henderson's Ryan DiFrabrizio in the second quarter. (For Digital First Media/Nate Heckenberger)

Springfield’s Joe Kennedy fights to escape the grasp of West Chester Henderson’s Ryan DiFrabrizio in the second quarter. (For Digital First Media/Nate Heckenberger)

It began with Kennedy, the offensive spark in a game where the Cougars struggled early and Henderson sputtered throughout. He found himself on the business end of touchdowns of 16 and 44 yards from Johnny Fanelli in the second half to nail shut the coffin on a lifeless Henderson team — one that failed to alter its coverage schemes to account for Kennedy.

“They wanted to stay in their defense, and we just wanted to take advantage, if it was Joe or whoever was out there,” Fanelli said. “We just wanted to take advantage of it.”

It was Joe, time and again.

Fanelli targeted Kennedy on 15 of 18 dropbacks. He found him for 10 of his 11 completions. The first score, a 16-yard corner route Fanelli feathered over a defender with 1:27 left in the third quarter, ended any realistic chance of Henderson coming back.

His second score — an out route that Kennedy grabbed, turned the corner, then sprinted down the sidelines through tacklers to pay dirt with 5:02 left — erased any doubt.

“We felt like we had this team from the beginning,” Kennedy said. “We knew if we just executed what we had to do, if our line held its blocks … if we just did our job, we knew we could get it.”

Beyond the scores, Kennedy’s knack for big plays at big moments perpetuated Springfield’s albeit limited first half momentum and suffocated Henderson (9-4).

On third-and-11 in the first half, Fanelli found Kennedy for 12 yards. On third-and-19, it was a 22-yard linkup. Then on fourth-and-3, Kennedy broke free down the seam for 23 yards, providing the Cougars a first-and-goal at the 7, which was cashed in two plays later by Ja’Den McKenzie’s four-yard dive.

Though some of the early receptions didn’t yield points, they controlled the clock. Springfield ran twice as many offensive plays (32-16) as Henderson in the first half. The edge for the game was 58-33.

With the luxury of an indefatigable defense, Springfield could afford a little patience getting up the field.

“With our defense, we want to score a lot, but we know if we get enough points, they’ll hold it down for us,” Kennedy said. “And we’ll be able to get out of here with a win.”

Springfield's Kevin Deal, right, hits Henderson quarterback Joe Saulino to force an incompletion during the Cougars 21-0 win Friday. (For Digital First Media/Nate Heckenberger)

Springfield’s Kevin Deal, right, hits Henderson quarterback Joe Saulino to force an incompletion during the Cougars 21-0 win Friday. (For Digital First Media/Nate Heckenberger)

The defense held up its end of the bargain with a magisterial performance. The Cougars limited Henderson to 71 yards of total offense. They forced six punts, allowed just two first downs (one with 12.3 seconds left in the first half on a drive that ended with a kneel-down) and grabbed an interception via Greg Tamaccio. That pick of Joe Saulino, off a double-reverse flea flicker, poignantly illustrated the desperate lengths to which Henderson went to unearth any spark.

The extremes were necessitated by Springfield’s utter denial of the ground game. C.J. Preston, the Ches-Mont League’s leading rusher, rushed 13 times for 13 yards. His big gainer: A whopping seven yards.

Saulino was 3-for-11 for 23 yards, though he and Nick Mascetti each ran for 18. Springfield collected only three tackles for loss, but its swarming defense stopped 14 of the Warriors’ 22 carries after one yard or fewer, a ruthless degree of stonewalling.

“We focused a lot on the run game,” linebacker Dwayne Snipes said. “When we dissected the film, they were 80 percent run. We mainly practiced their 22 offense and their heavy (package), and we were there. We were ready for their runs up the middle.”

“Hats off to them,” Saulino said. “They’re well prepared and their line was very quick and their defensive backs were solid in their protection.”

Henderson didn’t help its cause, either. With the game still 7-0, the Warriors could’ve buried Springfield deep on a punt. Instead, McKenzie fielded it at the 10 and dashed 50 yards.

Three players later, aided by a Henderson dead-ball personal foul as Springfield eyed a fourth-and-2 at the 32, Kennedy was in the end zone. Another unsportsmanlike conduct denied the unraveling Warriors a chance for a fourth-and-3 at their own 32 with seven minutes left.

Springfield defensive back Greg Tamaccio, right, secures and interception after a collision with teammate Joe Kennedy around Henderson receiver Mark Rizzo Friday. (For Digital First Media/Nate Heckenberger)

Springfield defensive back Greg Tamaccio, right, secures and interception after a collision with teammate Joe Kennedy around Henderson receiver Mark Rizzo Friday. (For Digital First Media/Nate Heckenberger)

“Right after that (McKenzie return), we started rolling,” Kennedy said. “We started hitting our blocks, hitting our man and everything came together as a team. (Henderson was) fighting as individuals.”

The win means the Cougars get to exact a little revenge next Friday against reigning district champ Academy Park, which as the top seed last year eliminated the Cougars in the first round.

Not that Kennedy has forgotten.

“It means that we have a lot more potential,” he said. “We have unfinished business with the team that knocked us out of the playoffs last year and the team that we started our first seven-on-seven with four months ago. Feels like just yesterday. It’s awesome.”

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