GRATERFORD >> Mike Ricci has been coaching football at Garnet Valley High since 1986, guiding his program from small-school status into a class of football so large that its designation seems like half an eye chart.
He coached the Jags when it was necessary for him to write letters to every young man in the school, suggesting that perhaps football would be a worthwhile after-school pursuit. He still coaches them, now that they need to squeeze into the weight room in shifts, just to accommodate all the bodies.
So he knew how to grow something.
He also knew when not to change anything at all.
“Old-fashioned?” Ricci was saying with a smile Friday night, on the field at Perkiomen Valley High. “I love old-fashioned.”
His Jaguars had just rolled previously unbeaten PV, 44-27, to advance to the championship round of the PIAA’s District 1 Class 6A tournament. And they had done it the 1986 way, and the 1996 way, and the 2006 way, and the only way Ricci will see that they play that game. They won with power. How else to explain running up a legitimate 44-spot on a regional power while completing somewhere between zero and two passes?
One completion in a lopsided district semifinal triumph?
What? Was quarterback Nick Juliano on a pitch count?
“We can pass the ball,” Ricci shrugged. “We just don’t believe in doing it unless we have to.”
That resourcefulness is what got the Jags started in what has become a surprising run into the postseason. For without two touchdown passes, and entertaining ones, too, from Juliano to Colin Davis in the postseason opening victory at Central Bucks South, the Jags would have been through. But Matt Lassik was sick and did not play in that game, perhaps contributing to Ricci revealing some of that wild side. But with Lassik back, the Jags won at Neshaminy, then tormented Perkiomen Valley with a running attack elegant in its simplicity.
“We don’t run too many plays,” said Lassik, who ran at least four of them Friday for touchdowns. “We have about four plays that work for us and if they are not working, we adjust to the defense that is ahead of us.”
They run four plays, with options off each, rolling behind a big offensive line. That separates them from the contemporary football trend of the short-pass attack. Nor does it necessarily have to be that way. From the inside, Juliano has been praised for his ability to hit runners in stride and to whistle passes into tight gaps. One teammate in training camp likened his skills, adjusted for the level of play, to Aaron Rodgers. And his critical connections with Davis at C.B. South were the result of an overload of offseason reps, two teammates trying to get the passing game right for their senior season.
But as Ricci said, there is no reason to make a ball available to everyone by putting it in the air when the ground game is so efficient. For that, Juliano was as happy as any Jag Friday, even though he connected only with Jon Ricci, who made a clever, juggling reception.
“Definitely,” Juliano said. “And we still practice passing. We still have it ready. But when we can ground and pound, it is always a good thing.”
Of course. Yet it works only for the physical teams. Garnet Valley is one. With Tom Mahoney, Alex Yao, Ryan Shomo, Jake Early, Chad Hrivnak and Joey DiAntonio, among others on the offensive line, the Jags forcefully clear space quickly enough for Juliano and his backs to choose from a tidy selection of open lanes. And they display similar strength with a defense that hits so hard that even on a night like Friday, when the stadium was nearly full, the crashing sounds reverberate.
“When you see one person hit hard, you want to do it too,” said linebacker Shane Donegan, active all night, mixing in an interception, giving Garnet Valley late possession at the Vikings’ seven. “We just love it. That’s how our defense is brought up. We love hitting. And that’s what we do best.”
Garnet Valley is 11-2 and peaking at a convenient time. Next is North Penn, a long-time, big-school standard unlikely to be easily solved. As for Mike Ricci, he has come too far to try it any other way.
“We’ve always been a run-heavy team,” he said. “And it’s working for us now. We are playing our best football. I am really proud of the fact that we have gotten better and better on both sides of the ball and on special teams throughout the course of the year.
“Right now, we are playing great defense. And our offense is running on all cylinders.”
One of them, anyway.