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Boccella brings familial feel to Sun Valley’s finale

ASTON >> Based on his heritage, Gabe Boccella may have seemed preordained to lead Sun Valley’s offense one day.

His father, Mike, was once the Vanguards’ starting quarterback, the 1979 graduate going on to play at Wichita State.

But Gabe, whose frame is more imposing than the 6-foot, 195 pounds at which he’s listed, didn’t line up under center until eighth grade. Always on the tall side for his age, he was utilized at the youth levels as a wide receiver or lineman.

But in eighth grade, he found his way into the quarterback position. And he’s never looked back.

“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to be that good at it, but it just felt like it came naturally,” Gabe said at a practice last week. “Maybe I’ve got to give a little credit to my dad, because he said he was good.”

Boccella will suit up for his high-school finale Thursday in the Vanguards’ Thanksgiving Day game with Chichester, the rivalry’s 55th edition.

For the third straight season, Gabe Boccella will be Sun Valley’s signal-caller on Turkey Day, one better than his father managed nearly four decades earlier.

Gabe has orchestrated consecutive wins for Sun Valley (6-5), which leads the all-time series, 29-25. He threw for one score and ran for another in a 27-0 shutout in 2014, then tossed for 158 yards and two scores (plus an interception grabbed from his safety position) in last year’s 20-7 victory.

Gabe also has an opportunity to accomplish something his father didn’t: Ending his career with a win over Chichester.

Mike Boccella was part of a successful 1977 team, the junior quarterback surrounded by talented upperclassmen that capped their season with a 13-6 win over Chichester.

His senior campaign proved to be another story. Blighted by a teacher strike in the Penn-Delco School District that lasted seven weeks, the Vanguards played most of the season sans coaches, with school administration overseeing the team. Rudderless, the season culminated with a 34-13 setback at the hands of Chi.

Gabe has a chance to make his own memories, aided by the constant counsel of his father. Gabe’s first exposure to Thanksgiving football arrived in eighth grade. He’d shown early aptitude in the sport, starring on Aston A.A.’s 100-pound championship team, then playing CYO football at Our Lady of Charity in Brookhaven and St. Joseph’s of Aston.

By the time he’d made the switch to Northley Middle School and quarterbacking, he was hooked, aided by that first game as a witness on the sidelines at Chi in 2012.

“It definitely pumped me up to play high school football,” Gabe said. “I definitely was more excited to play after seeing that game.”

Boccella’s transition to quarterback was immediate. Mike recalls Gabe’s first touchdown completion, a long ball down the sidelines that a receiver hauled in.

“It took me about three hours to get my head out of the clouds after that,” Mike said.

Gabe is receiving interest from a handful of District II and III schools to play collegiately. But first he’s got one more high school game to focus on, one that draws enough attention from the teams to introduce a welcomed dose of unpredictability.

Though Chichester (3-7) has struggled, the slates are wiped clean to a degree on Turkey Day, with only one game and no next week to prepare for. Both teams slid down the stretch of the season — Chichester losing three straight since a gutsy one-point win at Chester, and Sun Valley dropping four consecutive outings, including the first round of the District 1 Class 5A playoffs in blowout fashion to West Chester Henderson.

Chichester coach Ryan Smith says his motivational tasks are lessened, thanks in part to the connections between the two squads on social media, a ready-made way to stoke the fires. It also eases the scouting conundrum with highlights so readily available.

But most of all, Smith has geared the last two weeks of preparation, following a Week 11 loss to Avon Grove, toward getting his Eagles to look inward and deliver the best performance they can.

“I think they know what they’re capable of doing,” Smith said. “They don’t always play perfect football, but given an opportunity to be prepared and come in with confidence, they know exactly what they’re capable of.”

The big-game atmosphere is something that Gabe Boccella is also ready for. Mike is getting prepared in his own way.

“This is the biggest game of the year,” Gabe said. “It’s what everyone looks forward to. It’s the most intense game. … You definitely want to play your best in this game, especially since it’s our last game, us seniors. We just want to go out on the best note we can, do what we’ve got to do for Thanksgiving.”

“This being his last year and last game, I know he’s going to be riding high and pumped,” Mike said. “… I’m already pumped. I’m going to be anxious. You’re sad but happy: Sad that it’s his last game, excited that he’s on to the next step.”

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