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Coatesville knows the challenge ahead in state semifinal against powerful St. Joe’s Prep

The last District 1 football team to make it to a state championship game was Coatesville, and it happened back in 2012.

On Friday in the Eastern Final, the Red Raiders have a chance to do it again — but Philadelphia Catholic League behemoth St. Joseph’s Prep stands in the way.

The unbeaten Hawks may be as formidable as any high school program in the country right now. St. Joe’s plays a national schedule, has a nationwide reputation and the accomplishments to go along with it, including a 26-game winning streak and three of the last four big school state championships. The 2017 edition is 12-0 and is ranked seventh nationally by USA Today and High School Football America.

“At the end of the day, we will have to play our best in all three phases in order to have a chance to win,” said Coatesville head coach Matt Ortega.

The Raiders and Hawks will square off in the PIAA semifinal clash at 7 p.m. at Downingtown’s Kottmeyer Stadium, with the winner earning the right to play for the 6A state crown on Dec. 9th in Hershey against Saturday’s Pine-Richland/Manheim Township winner.

Under the guidance of veteran head coach Gabe Infante, St. Joe’s Prep boasts a premier defense, an underrated offense and special teams that are truly special. The Hawks cruised to the District 12 title and then clobbered previously unbeaten Parkland, 49-14, last weekend in round one of the PIAA Playoffs. As a program, St. Joe’s Prep is 3-0 against District 1 foes in the playoffs since 2013.

“There just aren’t going to be many public schools come out from our side of the state,” Ortega acknowledged. “With the way things are right now with St. Joseph’s Prep, La Salle and even in 5A with (Archbishop) Wood, it’s going to be a tall order.”

That brings us to the boundary vs. non-boundary controversy that’s been brewing since the Philadelphia Catholic League joined District 12 in 2008. In the intervening nine seasons, teams from District 12 have played in state title games in the PIAA’s top two classifications 12 times and have registered nine victories. And because private schools can draw talent from undetermined areas, there has been a pushback from largely public school entities (like District 1) that cannot.

“Kids don’t think about that stuff — it is more adults and coaches,” Ortega said.

“The most distressing thing about it for me as a coach is not the fact that these schools recruit, it’s the fact that the PIAA has turned a blind eye and says it doesn’t happen. Don’t say that it’s not going on. I think the worst part is the PIAA and not the private schools themselves.”

Nobody can deny, however, that the Hawks are loaded with experienced talent. There may not be a dynamic superstar — like 2016 running back D’Andre Swift, who is playing at Georgia — but St. Joe’s Prep has a roster full of players who will be playing on Saturdays next year.

“We hope that experience comes through on Friday, but you never know,” Infante said. “We are dealing with teenage boys. I tell people all the time, ‘Do you want to bet your mortgage on a 15-year-old kid?’”

Led by linebacker Phil O’Connor (Richmond recruit) and tackle Ryan Bryce (Army), the Hawks are stout on defense, particularly in the front seven. St. Joe’s has allowed just 92 points in 12 games (a 7.6 per game average), and in nine of those games the opposition was held to seven points or fewer.

“(St. Joe’s Prep is) very special on defense,” Ortega said. “But our guys are never going to be discouraged. They are very confident, and they should be.

“We’ve won 13 games, we pulled out a couple close games this year and we bounced back from that one loss (at Cumberland Valley). This group believes that if we go out there and take care of business, we can come out on top.”

Overall, the Hawks boast 11 linemen who weigh in at 250 pounds or more. Bryce is a 6-foot-4, 280-pound space eater in the middle, and O’Connor makes a lot of tackles. Parkland mustered just 30 rushing yards on 22 attempts.

“Our defense is a veteran group and they’ve responded to each challenge they’ve faced,” Infante said. “But in football you’re only as good as your last game.

“We try not to focus too much on the past or statistics. We don’t talk a lot about how great our defense is because I’ve coached some great defenses over the years that haven’t shown up at the right time.”

Infante says that he tends to play his best players on special teams, and the unit has blocked a dozen kicks or punts this season, and has returned many of them for scores. And in the return game, junior Marques Mason is dangerous.

“They’ve always been good on defense,” Ortega acknowledged. “They have the offense, but they are by far a team built around their defense and special teams. That’s been their formula and they are playing at a high level right now.”

That’s why, Infante points out, that St. Joe’s Prep doesn’t have a lot of gaudy offensive numbers, especially for a team that averages 34.5 points per game.

“The reason is our defense scores and so does our special teams,” he said.

“Special teams have been a hallmark for our program. If you look at the playoffs over the last five years, we always get a big special team’s play. But this year has been exceptional. I don’t think in 20 years of coaching I’ve ever seen a unit do what we’ve done this year.”

The Hawks’ offense is triggered by quarterback Marquez McCray (6-2, 220), who is sifting through Division I college offers, and wideout Darryle Simmons, who is headed to Virginia Tech. Mason is the top running back.

“We have some young players on that side of the ball that don’t get the notoriety that they deserve, but in time they will,” Infante said. “Matt McGeary and Casey Stephenson are two very talented 300-pound sophomore guards, and in two years people will be talking about them.”

Coatesville’s big edge could be with the venue. The Raiders play at Kottmeyer Stadium every season because it is the home field for both Downingtown East and Downingtown West. And the last time Coatesville played there in the playoffs, it topped District 12 champion LaSalle in 2012.

“We came into that game as an underdog, and we came out a winner and it was a great experience for us,” Ortega recalled. “It’s funny because that was very similar to this season, where we got into the playoffs, got hot and here we are playing at Downingtown. We feel it’s darn near a home game for us.”

Infante understands that it will be like a home game for the Raiders, but his Hawks are battle-tested. They opened the season with a tough road game against powerful Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla.

“For Coatesville’s psyche I’m sure it’s good to know they are playing in a comfortable environment,” he said. “For us, I like to put our kids in hostile environments all the time. That’s why we play in places like Tampa, and California, Illinois and Texas, or Florida, Maryland and North Jersey. I know that for us to win the games that matter most, our kids have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

“Our kids have played at Don Bosco Prep in North Jersey and there is not a more hostile environment.”

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