SHARON HILL >> The entire Academy Park football team rushed over to defensive coordinator Mike Ewing for a group hug after Friday night’s District 1 Class 5A semifinal game.
“We love coach,” said one of the players in a sea of humanity.
It has been an emotional few days for the Knights and, especially, Coach Ewing, whose brother died earlier in the week.
“We love him,” said defensive back Jermal Martin, who, like most of the Knights’ super-talented defensive players, owes a lot of their success to Ewing. “We did this for him.”
The No. 2 Knights soundly defeated third-seeded Marple Newtown, 26-7, to advance to their second straight district final. They will travel to No. 1 Springfield next week.
Academy Park will attempt to become the first team from Delaware County to win consecutive district championships since Garnet Valley in 2006-07.
After the game, they wanted to show Ewing how much they appreciate him, and how much they are with him during this tragic time.
“We played this game for him,” lineman Dan Kemp said.
Several Knights shared similar sentiments.
“We love Coach ‘U’,” added All-Delco linebacker/defensive back Teddy Wright. “We told him, we were going to get this win for him.”
Ewing was certainly proud of his guys Friday night. The Knights picked up seven sacks, including four by All-Delco defensive lineman Togba Porte, who was a menace.
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) November 19, 2016
“We wanted to come out with intensity and get to the quarterback,” Porte said. “But it wasn’t just me. We did thing together. We’re a family, and that’s what makes us successful. ”
Despite the Knights’ defensive dominance, Marple quarterback Anthony Paoletti set the county’s single-season passing record. Paoletti needed 158 yards coming into the game, and he finished with 214. Paoletti ended his incredible junior campaign with 2,793 yards, surpassing Dennis Decker of Ridley’s 26-year-old record of 2,737 yards.
Paoletti and the Tigers were well aware of the Knights’ extremely athletic defensive personnel.
“We knew they were going to be strong. We knew our offensive line was strong,” said Paoletti, who was 14 of 27 through the air with two interceptions. He accounted for the Tigers’ lone touchdown midway through the third quarter. “The game plan all week was to get the ball out fast. And, you know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There was nothing we could do about it. We tried everything we could possibly do.”
— Matt Smith (@DTMattSmith) November 19, 2016
Paoletti’s 12-yard scoring scamper pulled the Tigers with seven points, 14-7. Whatever momentum the Tigers were building was pulled away on the ensuing kickoff, when Martin took an 85-yard return to the house. Martin brilliantly surveyed the field, taking his time. When the moment was right, Martin turned on the burners and cut back to the left and around the edge. He zagged across the middle of the field and was untouched on the way to the end zone.
“My peripherals were working,” Martin said. “I took my time … and I saw one guy to beat. I was slow-stepping, waiting for my other back returner to come in front of me. I saw one guy to beat on this side (his left), and once I saw him, I was off to the races.”
Martin’s bright yellow-ish gloves and socks brought him good luck.
“If you were wondering about the colors,” Martin said, “it’s because I knew I was going to shine bright tonight.”
Wright and Dazhon Miller, once again, eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark. The Knights’ dynamic running duo followed the lead of their lineman, including Chris Thomas, who last week started his 50th varsity game, and Dan Kemp.
“Our strategy was to take out No. 68 (Mike Miller) because we knew he was their best defensive player,” Kemp said. “We knew he was going to cause havoc in the backfield.”
Miller had a sack early, but most of the Tigers’ defensive front was rendered ineffective in the trenches.
“The linemen always make it happen for us,” Wright said. “These two guys (Kemp and Wright) work so hard. They are making things happen for us all the time, and they’ve won us a lot of games.”
Wright had two scoring runs, including the back-breaker with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. He had 106 yards on 13 carries, while Miller churned out 102 yards on 17 totes.
“It’s all about our linemen, man,” Wright said. “They just push, push, push and we hit the hole. Me and Dazhon just follow them and we hit the hole when it’s there.”
AP’s run defense kept things 100, too. Marple running back Marlon Weathers had negative-five yards on seven carries.
“I like (Weathers), he’s a good back. I know his brother Marcus, too,” Wright said. “But on this field, we’re enemies.”
Carmen Christiana (five catches, 120 yards) and Cameron Mathes (five catches, 49 yards) did most of the damage in the receiving game.
“Our DBs have been criticized the whole year,” Martin said, “but we didn’t get beat deep once today. We showed up and played with a lot of intensity.”
The Knights (12-1) look to take that intensity into next Friday night when they meet Springfield, their toughest foe to date.
“As long as we play like a family, like we did tonight, we’ll be good,” said Porte, who treated Knight Park with his wonderful rendition of the National Anthem, “We’ll be ready.”
Friday night, it was all about winning one for Coach Ewing.
“He means a lot to all of us,” Thomas said.