You don’t have to look too far back to find a turning point in Garnet Valley’s season.
It was the penultimate weekend of the regular season, and the Jaguars were on the road against then-undefeated Springfield. The Cougars had their sights on a perfect march through the Central League and an outright title.
The Jaguars (11-2) had already lost to a pair of quality opponents in Ridley and Haverford High, and their chances at securing a berth in the District 1 Class 6A playoffs hinged on a strong finish. Another defeat and they would be considered “on the bubble.” Maybe, with three losses, they could salvage a low seed somewhere in the 14-to-16 range, but to guarantee a spot, they needed to beat Springfield.
“I think we never stopped believing what we were capable of,” senior quarterback Nick Juliano said at a practice last week, as the Jags were readying for their district semifinal battle at Perkiomen Valley. “We always had a feeling that we could be better and keep improving.”
Garnet Valley claimed a 21-14 victory over Springfield on the back of Jacob Buttermore’s three rushing scores. It was the third of seven consecutive wins.
At the Jags’ final regular-season game, a 42-7 drubbing of Conestoga, coach Mike Ricci sent a stern message to his players in the postgame huddle. In effect, he said that the teams the Jags would face in the playoffs have no idea what’s about to hit them because they haven’t seen the Jags at their best.
“That’s always been the goal,” linebacker Charlie Coslett said last week, “To continue to build and build. Never look back, just keep it moving.”
GV has posted three straight wins on the road in the district tournament. As the No. 10 seed, the Jags disposed of No. 7 Central Bucks South, No. 3 Neshaminy and No. 2 Perkiomen Valley. The Jags won in blowout style over Neshaminy and Perk Valley, both of which were previously undefeated.
“This is a team that early in the season lost to a tough Ridley and a tough Haverford team, but we felt like either of those games could have gone the other way,” Ricci said after last week’s 42-27 rout of Perk Valley.
Ricci, who notched his 200th career win earlier in the season, has won four Central League titles and two district crowns in his remarkable coaching career in Concord. He’s had some of the best teams in the county since the turn of the century, and the 2016 squad has quickly put itself among his favorites.
“This is as good a defense as we’ve ever had here at Garnet Valley,” Ricci said. “We’re aggressive. We run to the ball. We have smart players back there. Coach (Jeff) Allison, our defensive coordinator, and his staff put together a great defensive gameplan week in and week out. But we are playing at a high level right now.”
The Jags must continue to play at their absolute best in Friday’s District 1 Class 6A final. They travel to No. 1 North Penn (13-0) for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
“There were some tough teams in the Central League that were able to handle us. They were learning experiences for us,” said running back Matthew Lassik, who exploded for a career-high 244 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the Perk Valley game.
The secret to the Jags’ success is the split-veer offensive system, which is a new wrinkle to the Jags’ triple-option base. It’s clearly giving teams outside of the Central League fits.
“It’s amazing with all the backs we have and the O-line parting the Red Sea for us, we just run the ball right down the chute, where ever the hole is and we just get it done every game,” said Lassik, who has flourished in a running back-by-committee with Buttermore, Danny Guy and Austin Patton, among others.
On defense, hard-hitting lineman Ron Monachello and linebackers Shane Donegan and Coslett have been excellent. Meanwhile, the defensive secondary continues to improve, too. But what has made the Jags so nasty is its ability to cause disruption at the line of scrimmage.
“When you see one person hits hard, you want to do it too. We love it,” Donegan said. “That’s how our defense is brought up. We love hitting. That’s what we do best.”
North Penn is one of the most decorated football programs in PIAA history. The Knights are vying for their seventh district title as they appear in their 11th final in 15 years. They are led by quarterback Reece Udinski, who joined Perk Valley’s Stephen Sturm in eclipsing the state record for passing yards in a season. Udinski has thrown for 3,402 yards, a mere 36 yards shy of tying Sturm’s record.
The Jags, though, have a track record of roughing up star quarterbacks, beginning with Neshaminy’s Mason Jones two weeks ago and Sturm last week. Their goal is to make it three in a row.
“We have a great defense,” Donegan said. “We do what we’re supposed to do.”
If you’re looking for common opponents, Garnet Valley and North Penn each played Haverford. The Jags fell to the Fords, 34-28, in overtime back in September. The Knights pummelled Haverford in the opening round of districts, 56-7.