In one of the proudest and passionate football communities in the state, it’s not hard to find a friendly, yet thorough, debate of some of the greatest running backs in Downingtown history.
You hear names like Harris and Boggs and Miller and Stonewall and there are those who will evoke names from the early 1900’s and those who will compare the talents of those from Downingtown East or West to those of the glory days when Downingtown was one program.
Heck, you could talk to people associated with the Downingtown Young Whippets program and hear disputes that basketball star Tina Nicholson was one of the best running backs at the youth level.
It comes down to eras, styles and skill sets in any debate, but the fact remains, there have been some great athletes to run the ball in the blue and yellow and there are many ways to utilize backs.
That is not more evident than looking at the modern day comparisons between the Cougars of East and Whippets of West. The two schools are only five miles away, but light years apart in philosophy.
Their sustained successes have proven there really is more than one way to skin a cat.
“(Downingtown West coach Mike) Milano has great schemes and he’ll really stretch the defense,” Downingtown East coach Mike Matta said. “You’ll notice, when he gets to the playoffs, his teams will put up 50 points sometimes because if you don’t know what his scheme is, he’ll crush you, X and O wise. Me, I’m not that smart. I say you can’t put a square peg in a round hole, you just need a bigger hammer.”
East has come a long way from its early years after the split. Back then, quarterback Pat Devlin navigated a wide open spread offense and put up passing numbers that made him a coveted recruit.
But Matta realized, for one, that Devlins don’t come around very often, and two, cultivating a system geared for physical, run-dominant football was more practical.
He sowed the seeds, getting his teams to live in the weight room, and the Cougars, win or lose, made sure teams felt their presence.
There have been good quarterbacks since Devlin at East, starting with the Lauletta trio of brothers, Trey, Kyle and currently Bryce, but the offense is predicated on the running back doing his job.
“We look for mental and physical toughness,” Matta said. “He’s going to get the ball 20, 30 times a game and take hits. The next thing we look for is a kid with some vision and elusiveness.”
While East has those big, physical backs like Drew Harris and Ryley Angeline, West hasn’t had the workhorse back as often.
Roshaan McCain and his 1,800-plus yards in 2006, Jared Heller in 2008 and Zach Barr in 2011 are the rare breed that eclipses the 1,000-yard mark for the Whippets.
Milano hasn’t been blessed with the same size up front as Matta, but he is a master at figuring out what his skill kids do well and then putting them in positions to flourish.
“I’ve had kids with different skill sets,” Milano said. “Roshaan McCain had 30 touchdowns his senior year and we went through him. Guys like Jared Heller or Zach Barr you hand the ball off to. Jake Barr had the best hands in the league so you tried to get him the ball in his hands any way you could. You play to their strengths.”
Barr is maybe the best example of Milano’s adaptability. As a senior in 2015, Barr ran for 690 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 40 passes for 760 yards and 10 more scores. It was Barr’s second straight season with over 1,000 total yards and 20 offensive touchdowns.
In 2010, when Barr topped 1,000 yards for the first time, backfield mate Mike Riddick amassed 869 total yards and 14 touchdowns.
The examples are plenty, with Cole Zapf playing that role last season.
“We’re rooted in wing-T principles, but we’re not a wing-T team,” Milano said. “We’ve always looked for explosive players. If we had a kid who was 220 pounds with a big line, we would be that team, too. The fun part is finding out who you are.”
With those wing-T roots, Milano has changed the way fullback is played in his offense, from the prototypical lead blocker, pick up three yards kind of kid to a faster, running back/fullback hybrid that he calls an ace.
Matta, on the other hand, says fullback is the hardest position to play on his team with all the lead-blocking and pass-catching responsibilities.
With East, you know what’s coming. They are going to run power as many different ways as they can and teams gear up to stop it so much that the Cougars are one of the best play action teams in the last decade. It’s helped having pass catchers like Tyler Kroft, Jay Harris and Cary Angeline, but East was never as dynamic as when Drew Harris was at running back.
“Downingtown East is a good example of running the ball between the tackles, but they also have athletes all over the field to spread you out,” Avon Grove coach Harry O’Neill said. “I think the game is definitely going that way.”
The game is getting more spread out, but that hasn’t deterred Matta away from his philosophy. Since Drew Harris, the Cougars haven’t had that home run threat in the backfield, in favor of the battering ram type.
“Our philosophy and personal belief is to run the ball and work hard on the offensive line,” Matta said. “We’re going to try to physically wear you down. Our kids are enormous and that’s out philosophy, to pound the ball downhill and make you stand in front of it for 48 minutes.”
Over the last decade East has won 85 games while West has won 76. There are those who ponder what if Downingtown had stayed as one high school, like the powers of the Suburban One League. What might have been?
The theories are endless and those fantasies are warranted, but if you look at it from the other perspective, what Matta and Milano have put on display, year after year, in one of the best football settings in the state is something to be treasured.
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