SPRINGFIELD >> There is nothing exciting about the way Springfield prepares for a big game.
Maybe it’s the personalities of seniors Ja’Den McKenzie, Dan Pennestri and Justin Shields that impact the rest of the team. They take a business-like approach to playing football.
They will admit, now is not the time to sit back and enjoy how awesome their 2017 season has been to this point. Now is not the time to gloat or fool around. With an 8-0 record, the Cougars are tied for first in the Central League, they’re the No. 2 team in Delaware County and the top squad in the District 1 Class 5A playoff standings.
But none of that matters … for now.
Please excuse these Cougars if they haven’t put too much emphasis on the importance of Friday night’s showdown against undefeated Garnet Valley, which is the No. 1 team in the county.
Oh, it’s the biggest game of the season in Delaware County, and the winner earns at least a share of the Central League title, with one week to play in the regular season. But the Cougars aren’t really paying attention to the hype. They call each team on their schedule, “the faceless opponent.” And that’s not a jab at the guys standing on the other sideline.
“We just go on to the next day and treat it like any other game,” said Pennestri, an offensive and defensive tackle. “Every game is important, but we practice the same every week, you know? There’s no difference.”
“It’s the next game on the schedule, the next game where we want to try to be,” said Shields, an All-Delco defensive lineman. “We don’t change anything, we just stay focused.”
Friday night, the Cougars (8-0, 7-0) and Jaguars (8-0, 7-0) clash in what should be an epic battle to determine bragging rights in the Central League. Garnet Valley is averaging 319 rushing yards per game, while Springfield’s defense has limited opposing rushers to 95 yards. Something has to give between the two titans.
One explanation for Springfield’s success is its senior leadership and sense of brotherhood.
“Honestly, I think it’s because of the connection we have. We’re all best friends. We all hang out after games, after practices, 24/7,” Pennestri said. “When you’re playing with the guy next to you, you’re playing with your brother.”
“We have 14 seniors on this team and we all step up. There’s not just one guy on the team that you look at to take charge,” Shields added. “We all come together as seniors and take charge of the team as a whole.”
McKenzie is the focal point of any defense’s game plan. The senior running back leads Delaware County in rushing with 900 yards and 14 touchdowns. In addition, McKenzie has excelled on defense at outside linebacker. He has four interceptions and four defensive touchdowns.
Pound for pound, McKenzie might be the best player in Delco. He’ll have a chance to show it on the main stage Friday night.
“We have to come into the game with more heart and we have to be willing to put up a fight,” McKenzie said. “We’re not going to back down.”
Springfield’s defense, which has posted a county-high 24 takeaways, including 15 in its last four games, will be tasked with stopping Garnet Valley’s potent ground attack. Matt Lassik has run for 800 yards and seven touchdowns, while fellow senior Danny Guy has 783 yards and seven scores. Shields, Pennestri, defensive end Kevin Deal and linebacker Pat Clemens are among the Springfield standouts responsible for taking the Jags out of their rhythm. Garnet Valley, which runs a veer-option offense, has a reputation for grinding out long drives and tiring opposing defenses.
“We know they’re very good,” Shields said. “They might break a big play here or there, but in the end we’ve just got to stick together, Hopefully it turns out on our side. We know we’re up for a big task. They’re a good team, but we’re going to come out and play.”
In addition to having the top rusher in the county, and arguably the best defense, the Cougars’ Jack Psenicska has emerged as an elite quarterback. The senior is fourth in the county in passing yardage (1,117), third in touchdown passes (15) and second in efficiency rating (173.76).
“I’m not even surprised. I’ve known Jack for a while,” Pennestri said. “I remember during the summer, people would come up and ask me who’s going to be quarterback. I always said Jack and I always said we’ve got nothing to worry about.”
After practice Wednesday, McKenzie, Pennestri and Shields posed for a quick photo. When Pennestri innocently put up his index finger, Shields nudged him.
“Put your finger down,” Shields said.
“Why?” Pennestri responded.
“We’re not No. 1,” Shields fired back.
Maybe not … yet.
Top photo: From left, Springfield’s Ja’Den McKenzie, Dan Pennestri and Justin Shields after practice Wednesday, Oct. 18.
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