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Porte, Academy Park rely on experience to get job done

SPRINGFIELD >> With an authoritative baritone that blankets an open field like the steady rain falling Friday night, Togba Porte made known the primary difference between his Academy Park team and Springfield.

“We’ve been here before,” the defensive end, who sings the national anthem before home games, intoned as he stalked the sidelines. “They haven’t.”

“It’s not bragging,” Porte would clarify later, “just facts.”

The Academy Park football team poses with its District 1 championship trophy, its third in four years, with a 24-18 win over Springfield in the Class 5A final. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

The Academy Park football team poses with its District 1 championship trophy, its third in four years, with a 24-18 win over Springfield in the Class 5A final. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Under the bright lights of a district final, this one in the rejiggered District 1 Class 5A, Porte knew that the pressure would strike both sidelines at some point, like a linebacker bursting into the backfield (of which the collision packed plenty, too).

When that inevitably occurs, Porte implicitly asked, who reacts first? Or best?

Springfield responded admirably, like a top seed and the champion of a Central League that generated two district finalists. But Academy Park’s answer to adversity, time and again, reflected its championship pedigree.

As much as uncovering one more explosive offensive play here or an extra defensive stop there, that resilience paved the path for a 24-18 Academy Park win and the Knights’ third district title in four seasons.

The special ingredient was the ineffable poise of experience. While finalists from the last four district championships were represented Friday (including Springfield’s loss to Great Valley two years ago), the Knights’ crowns in the old Class 3A in 2015 and 2013 entitled them to the decisive edge in the familiarity category.

“We’ve been here before,” said AP linebacker/running back/unofficial spokesman Teddy Wright. “We know what’s going to happen. There’s going to be adversity.”

That wisdom ensured that even as the Knights trailed, they never let their belief ebb. It’s how, after a stagnant first half, running back Dazhon Miller busted a 62-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to tie the game at 15 … 18 seconds after a Ja’Den McKenzie scoring burst of 41 yards.

Miller, who carried the ball 12 times for 89 yards, also had an eight-yard score in the first half. He finished the half with just 14 yards, but the knowledge that a breakthrough was never far away.

“He’s a great running back,” Wright said of Miller. “Once our linemen open up the hole for him, he just goes.”

Every time Springfield staggered Academy Park (13-1), the Knights had a riposte at the ready.

AP trailed at halftime, 9-8, thanks to McKenzie’s first touchdown run and a safety. As four-year starter Chris Thomas observed, the Knights had been there before: In all three of their district final victories, the Knights’ overcame a halftime deficit.

AP fell behind late in the third quarter, courtesy of Jack Coary’s 35-yard field goal, making it an 18-15 margin, soon erased by Kareem Burton’s 46-yard jet sweep.

And late, after Springfield (12-2) surrendered a safety on fourth-and-43 from their 7 to attempt an onside free kick that the Cougars’ Chris DiRenzo grabbed, the defense had one final stand, led by Amara Kenneth. The end sacked backup quarterback Brandon DiChiacchio, upping his tackles-for-loss total to 3.5 on the night, and jarred loose the ball for Cyle Martin to scoop up.

There’s no denying Springfield’s role in this drama, pushing the Knights to their limit. But the arsenal was winnowed down as the game dragged on. They lost quarterback Johnny Fanelli to a shoulder issue, first caused by a flagged late hit as he slid on a run, then aggravated when Porte spun him down on a 15-yard loss. Vince Puppio, who caught four balls, limped off late, as did McKenzie (25 carries, 167 yards) at several junctures.

“It was a little bit of nerves early, trying to come out here,” receiver/defensive back Greg Tamaccio said. “But it’s just another game, coming out and playing.”

“You get the best of everybody,” Kenneth said. “They weren’t letting up, and we sure weren’t letting up either. We got the best of each other, and we came out on top.”

FANELLI HURT

With the stakes their highest, the Knights projected calm. Mistakes would be made — McKenzie would break contain, penalties would hand Springfield first downs, a turnover would be mixed in, when Dwayne Snipes wrestled a ball away from Wright. Springfield would move the ball (16 first downs to AP’s nine). But ultimately, one unit or another on Academy Park would swing the difference.

First, it was the offense. Later, the defense. Always, though, someone with a stylized sword on their helmet.

“The defense, we were down, but the offense really stepped it up for us,” Kenneth said. “Coming in, this game was supposed to be a defensive game. We let up a little bit, and the offense really stepped it up for us. We’ve got to thank them for that. And then we had to close the game.”

How about another word that starts with “d”? Like “dynasty.”

Coach Jason Vosheski demurred. But the lone player along for all three rides, the offensive lineman Thomas, was a little more accommodating.

“When I came into Academy Park, playing football for these guys, I didn’t even know that would be possible,” Thomas said. “I played in, was going to play my game, and knowing that I had the opportunity to have a third title in four years as a four-year starter, it’s an honor. It’s an honor to go down in Academy Park history known as one of those guys to look up to.”

“That’s my first time someone saying, ‘Academy Park dynasty,’” Porte said. “That sounds good.”

Music to his ears.

To contact Matthew De George, email mdegeorge@delcotimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.

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