Amidst the pageantry and tradition of Thanksgiving morning, a significant bit of Delaware County football history will be made Thursday at Upper Darby High School.
For the first time in county history, two quarterbacks toting 2,000-yard seasons will play when Haverford High sophomore Jake Ruane and Upper Darby senior Nate Rimel take their first snaps under center.
Then, 20-some hours later, the other extreme will be expressed on the turf at North Penn, when Garnet Valley — a team that has racked up 86 points the last two weeks in dominant fashion with a grand total of one completed forward pass — plays for a District 1 Class 6A title.
It’s a perplexing dichotomy. In the midst of the most prolific season for Delaware County passers, the two teams that advanced the farthest in Class 6A, Ridley and Garnet Valley, are among the most pass-averse in the county.
“No matter what you’re doing, you have to execute,” Marple Newtown coach Chris Gicking said Monday. “In Garnet’s case, they’re executing very well at a very high level with their offense. No matter what you do, have to practice it, you have to execute it. The coaches can diagram whatever they want, but the players have to execute it.”
It may seem like a stock answer, but it rings true, though the historical weight of this season requires more digging.
No Delco football season prior to 2016 had featured multiple quarterbacks throwing for 2,000 or more yards. This season features three — Ruane, Rimel and Gicking’s charge, Marple Newtown junior Anthony Paoletti, who last Friday set the Delco single-season record for yards in a season at 2,793.
On only four occasions (1993, 1994, 1996 and 2015) had two signal-callers surpassed 1,800 yards; 2016 includes four such passers (with Archbishop Carroll’s Stephen Honick) and a fifth, Haverford School’s Tommy Toal, at 1,767 and under the standard only by dint of his team being limited to 10 games.
Let’s put that another way: Three quarterbacks this season have topped the 2,000-yard plateau. That’s the same total as the period stretching from 2007 to 2015. Before this season, there were only 15 total 2,000-yard quarterbacks. Heading into Thanksgiving, current passers sit first (Paoletti), 13th (Rimel, 2,163 yards) and tied for 15th (Ruane, 2,039) on the single-season list.
And yet, of the three surviving playoff teams in District 1, two are run-first and one is as close to run-exclusive as you can get.
Then there’s the matter of Dennis Decker’s long-standing record for yards in a season. It survived a scare last year when Haverford High’s Jack Donaghy fell 21 yards shy at 2,706. But Paoletti erased the 26-year-old mark, leading his Tigers to a District 1 Class 5A semifinal in the process.
With 1,888 yards in 2015, the junior has 4,681 in his career, fifth-most all-time, nudging past Strath Haven great Mike Connor. With his senior season ahead of him, Paoletti has a chance to surpass Gicking’s career mark (5,897). Yet it’s fair to wonder if Ruane, with a 2,000-yard season as a sophomore, could leave them all in the dust.
That begs the question, why the long dormancy now awakened to historical proportions? There’s no definitive answer.
Part of it is structural. It’s taken a few years for the spread offense craze to trickle into broad implementation in high school, just like the early 1990s boom that produced Decker, Gicking and others reflected the delayed propagation of the West Coast offense wave. It may be the natural ebb and flow of talent at certain positions, or the preferences of coaches to funnel their talented playmakers toward the receiving corps rather than multi-back sets.
What’s unique about the high school landscape is that older schemes still persist even as newer ones appear. Where veer offenses are few and far between in college and nonexistent in the pro ranks, they maintain an ardent foothold in high school, contributing to an array of attacks for coaches to defend. And with the success some enjoy, why change?
Garnet Valley head coach Mike Ricci, one of the foremost exponents of the run-first approach, thinks a niche will always exist for the running game.
“I think that would be a sad day for football if that ever happened,” Ricci said of the possibility of Wing-T and veer offenses vanishing. “I think the run game has proven the test of time. It’s not as sexy as the spread, doesn’t produce as many big plays. But from a defensive standpoint, if somebody hits us with a long touchdown pass, that’s easier to get over than if someone runs the ball five yards a carry down the field and we can’t stop them.”
Ricci looks at what coaches prioritize. For him, that’s finding a QB to manage the handoff choreography, then getting the talented linemen he relishes in an ample supply to identify and make the correct blocks. Gicking, meanwhile, has spent his two years as a head coach with what he regards as a “special” talent in Paoletti; the run-pass balance they strike may not copy over to future groupings.
Whether this is a new normal in Delco or just a historical anomaly is too soon to tell. The more practical consequence comes from how it pertains to Delco’s success this season. Three Central League teams made the District 1 semifinals in their respective classes, as did two Del Val teams. The prevalence of so many different schemes within the week-to-week league preparation goes a long way toward arming coaches with valuable adaptability come playoff time.
“Absolutely, I think playing in the Central League, there’s such a variety of things that teams do,” Ricci said. “And having to get ready for those teams week in and week out, it’s a huge advantage for us.”