EAST MARLBOROUGH – It’s a great rivalry forged by close, impactful meetings.
It seems like the winner of the West Chester Rustin-Unionville football clash always decides the Ches-Mont American title because it has been that way every year for the last decade. On Friday, the two met for the 12th time, and nobody was surprised that there were four ties, it was deadlocked heading into the final period, and that the outcome wasn’t decided until the final minutes.
In the end, the host Indians staged a fourth quarter scoring drive and then found a way on defense to thwart a pair of fourth-and-short situations with the Golden Knights threatening to tie it. Ranked 15th in the latest Pa. PrepLive Top-20, Unionville won it, 28-21, and are now the odds on favorite to capture the division title for the third consecutive season.
“This is what Rustin games are always like,” said Indians’ head coach Pat Clark.
“We expected a close, tough game and we certainly got it,” added Unionville’s big-play wideout J.T. Hower. “(Rustin) fought hard and we fought a little harder.”
Now 4-0 (7-0 overall), the Indians can wrap up no worse than a share of the crown with a win on Oct. 20 at Sun Valley. Unionville travels to Downingtown East next Friday in a Ches-Mont crossover battle of unbeatens. Rustin falls to 2-1, 4-3 overall.
“The legacy was already strong when we came here, but to put our own stamp on that legacy is what we are trying to do,” said Indians’ do-it-all two-way star Joe Zubillaga. “If we can win three in a row, it would be great. We’ve stayed together even though we’ve lost so many pieces along the way.”
Locked in a 21-21 stalemate, Unionville needed just five plays to get to the end zone. Quarterback Alex Gorgone hit Hower for a 36-yarder to convert a fourth-and-five near midfield, and two plays later he hit Connor Schilling on a 10-yard scoring strike, which wound up being the game-winner.
There was still more than nine minutes on the clock, however. On the Knights final two possessions, they drove into Indians territory only to turn it over on downs. On the first, the Knights’ Ty Pringle managed three yards when he needed four. And on the second – with 1:45 left in regulation – Nick Benoit needed two yards and was held to one.
“We came up huge on those fourth-and-short situations,” Zubillaga said.
“I can’t say enough about (Rustin’s) program, their kids and their coaches,” Clark added. “We got their best shot and in the second half we were able to get just a few stops on defense and that was the difference.
“I think our kids just really bore down. It was really about focus on defense.”
For much of the evening, Rustin’s rushing attack racked up chunks of yardage. Pringle led the way with 112 yards and two TDs on 17 carries. And even though Unionville forced just one punt, it stopped the Knights on their final three possessions.
“We tweaked a few things at halftime, but we really just talked about every player doing his job. I thought we did our jobs better,” Clark explained.
“Unionville made some plays when they had to and we didn’t,” said Rustin head coach Mike St. Clair. “Both teams have good offenses that control the ball, and they just put one more on the board than we did.”
Hower finished with four catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns. The senior speedster touched the ball seven times and averaged 24.5 yards per.
“By week three, (Hower) had only touched the ball eight times,” Clark said. “We needed to get him more involved. He’s had big plays in the last four games in a row. He stretches the field for us.”
Hower hauled in a pass from Zubillaga, then broke two tackles and raced the final 20 yards of a 46-yard play to put the Indians ahead, 21-14, in the third quarter. But the Knights responded with a series that featured only runs, including the second of Pringle’s two scores. It set up the tense finish.
“We knew we were going to get a good football team’s best shot for 48 minutes and the way our kids dug down, I am proud of their effort,” Clark said.
“We had too many breakdowns in coverage that led to easy touchdowns for them,” St. Clair added. “With a team like (Unionville), you need to make them work for their points.”
Making up for an earlier fumble that wasted a trip into the red zone, Pringle capped a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive with a five-yard run to open the scoring. But the Indians came right back with a long possession of their own early in the second period, tying it with an 11-yard TD run by Jack Adams.
The Knights ramped up their ground game to retake the advantage thanks to 10 consecutive runs, including a short scoring burst by Benoit. Unionville, however, knotted it once again just before the intermission when Gorgone connected with Hower for a 33-yard strike.
“We knew how much this game meant, so we all rallied together, gave it our all and it really paid off at the end. It’s amazing what we can do together,” said Zubillaga, who led Unionville with 62 yards on the ground.
Rustin finished with 260 rushing yards, but managed just 108 total yards in the second half. The Indians nearly doubled the Knights output in the final two quarters.
“We finally started figuring out how to defend them at the end,” Hower said. “We were dialed in and made some plays.”
It was also a clash that has heavy class 5A playoff implications. Afterwards, St. Clair hinted that these two could meet again in the District 1 playoffs.
“We are two evenly matched programs and it’s been great games for 12 years now,” he said. “It’s been a great series and rivalry, and I’m looking forward to playing them next year … or maybe later this year.”