NEWTOWN TWP. >> In two district playoff games, Marple Newtown’s defensive unit has found something. What that is, isn’t easy to explain.
Perhaps it’s as simple as a team hitting its stride at the right time. In wins over Oxford and Upper Moreland, the Tigers (8-4) have allowed 255 yards and 15.5 points per game. The run defense is giving up 3.5 yards per carry, compared to a 4.5 clip in the regular season. Going back further in time, the defense has posted eight takeaways during the team’s four-game winning streak.
While those statistics don’t scream dominance, there were times this year, not long ago, when the Tigers were hemorrhaging points against the top players in the Central League. They dropped a heartbreaking, 34-31 decision to Garnet Valley in a game the Tigers thought they should have won. Against Springfield, the No. 1 seed in the District 1 Class 5A playoffs, the Tigers lost 42-19. And they were shut out by Haverford, 35-0.
Now they are facing the possibility of not having All-Delco quarterback Anthony Paoletti, who is trying to fight off the effects of an injury to get back Friday night for a District 1 Class 5A semifinal game against No. 3 seed Unionville.
With or without their leader on offense, however, the Tigers are ready. They’ve licked their wounds, regrouped and find themselves a win away from the district final.
That’s the only thing that matters.
“We’ve had our ups and downs this year, but especially during the playoffs, everyone has stepped up as a team,” senior lineman Mike Shelly said. “It’s really starting to feel like a family. We’re definitely playing our best football.”
Maybe that “something” can be pinned on defensive coordinator Harry Gicking, otherwise known as “Dirty Harry,” a meticulous game-planner.
“My dad does a great job with the defense. He watches endless amount of film,” head coach Chris Gicking said. “He’s always thinking of something. ‘Well, this team doesn’t run this, but they could do this or this.’ I’m like, ‘Dad, what are you talking about?’ He’s throwing every scenario and everything he can think of at us during practice.”
And it’s players such as Shelly and fellow seniors Luke Cantwell and Kyle Tobin, who have executed Harry Gicking’s strategy to a ‘T.”
“He can come up with any game plan that he wants, but it’s the kids who have obviously responded,” Chris Gicking said.
In the 24-18 victory over No. 2 Upper Moreland in the quarterfinals, Cantwell jarred a ball loose as the Golden Bears were threatening to tie the score in the fourth quarter. Lineman Mike Miller recovered the fumble and the Marple Newtown offense, led by junior running back Marlon Weathers’ 170-yard performance, carried the team across the finish line.
“I know, when I’m out there, I like being more vocal,” Cantwell said. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our D-line. The last couple of weeks they gotten big sacks, QB hurries and breaking everything up constantly. They (the defensive line) are playing like animals.”
Tobin, a soft-spoken terror at defensive end, recently became the school’s all-time career sacks leader.
“I don’t worry about (setting records) right now,” Tobin said. ‘We have two more games to win.”
Seventh-seeded Marple Newtown travels to Unionville (11-1), which is coming off a 39-8 rout of Strath Haven. The Indians have a cavalcade of playmakers, including running back Dante Graham, who ran for three touchdowns last week. Quarterback Alex Gorgone completed 10 of 14 passes for 201 yards and a score.
“Everyone knows the mission,” Shelly said. “We have to play our best game.”
Weathers, who is the leading rusher in Delaware County with close to 1,500 yards, has given the Tigers a huge lift the last several weeks. In two playoff games, the junior has amassed 428 yards and six TDs. Weathers will get the ball early and often against Unionville.
After practice Thursday, Paoletti’s availability was up in the air due to an injury suffered in the win over Upper Moreland. Gicking remains hopeful that his star quarterback will be back behind center Friday night.
“We’re preparing both ways, if Anthony’s going to play or if he’s not going to play,” Gicking said. “Any player is one play away from being out, you know? We’ve got to be prepared and we will be.”
Nevertheless, the Indians should expect a heavy dose of Weathers and the Tigers’ resurgent ground attack. Tobin, Shelly, Luke Zimmerman, Kevin Hahn and Sal Tartaglia have paved the way in the trenches. Jack Fallows has flourished as a blocking fullback.
“Marlon’s obviously a really talented running back,” Gicking said. “As the season goes on … you have to rely more on the running game, especially as the weather gets colder.”
In the other Class 5A semifinal:
Upper Dublin at Springfield >> The top-seeded Cougars (12-0) return to a district tournament final four for the third time in four years.
Behind a stout defensive effort and three touchdown passes, the Cougars dismantled West Chester Rustin last week, 28-7. Junior QB Jack Psenicska was 10 of 14 for 126 yards and two TDs. Frank Durham Jr. threw for a touchdown and caught one. Kyle Long added four catches for 69 yards and two scores.
After missing the district opener, running back Ja’Den McKenzie ran for 97 yards and a score. Springfield’s defense, the top-ranked unit in Delco, has six turnovers in two playoff games.
No. 5 Upper Dublin (8-3) stunned No.4 Academy Park, 17-12. UD had a lot of success with short screen passes and its defense caused four turnovers. Cardinals QB Julian Gimbel was 17 of 28 for 181 yards and showed elusiveness in the pocket. However, it’s unlikely that Gimbel and the the Cards have seen a defensive front as bruising as Springfield’s.
In the District 1 Class 6A semifinal round:
Pennridge at Garnet Valley >> The Jags’ improbable comeback victory over No. 5 North Penn has them back in the district semifinals for a
second straight year. Third-seeded GV erased a 35-7 third-quarter deficit when quarterback Ryan Gallagher scampered into the end zone on a two-point conversion run with 46 seconds to go in regulation. Danny Guy’s second touchdown run of the night set up the winning play.
GV’s potent triple-option attack managed 225 rushing yards, its second-lowest output of the season. The Jags (11-1) face a red-hot Pennridge defense that has produced back-to-back shutout wins, including a 25-0 rout of No. 2 Perkiomen Valley in the quarterfinals. Players to watch on the No. 7 Rams (10-2) are end Ryan Rapp and linebacker Nick Tarburton, a Penn State commit. Offensively, Ryan Garner had 105 yards rushing and quarterback Zak Kantor finished with 112 yards passing and three TDs.
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