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GEOGHEGAN: On the biggest stage, against a national power, Coatesville does not disappoint

DOWNINGTOWN >> Not long after the horn signaled the end to Friday evening’s incredibly entertaining PIAA 6A semifinal collision, Coatesville football coach Matt Ortega admitted that games like he had just witnessed — played amidst the kind of atmosphere that was present at Downingtown’s Kottmeyer Stadium — is the reason he wanted to come to coach the Red Raiders back in 2009.

“The makeup of our community is where I wanted to bring my family,” said Ortega, who came from William Penn High School in York at the age of 34. “We love it. We have diversity and that old school tradition that makes it special.

“Coatesville is a throwback. That’s what I love about our place. The kids feed off it. That’s the reason we almost had a chance to pull this off.”

In the end, the Ches-Mont National and District 1 champs were nipped by defending state champion St. Joseph’s Prep, 53-49, in a clash that featured a display of offensive fireworks that lit up the Downingtown sky. In the second half alone, the Red Raiders and Hawks put up a combined 71 points.

“What people don’t understand is that at this time of the season, these are all championship teams,” said St. Joe’s head coach Gabe Infante. “Which means nobody is used to going down without a fight.

“It was a heavyweight fight and neither side wanted to tap out. What a phenomenal group of kids on both sides of the field. I have so much respect for the Coatesville kids.”

In a stadium that holds 5,000, there had to close to 6,000 on hand. And to the surprise of no one, two-thirds of the faithful were wearing Coatesville red and black. Granted, the Raiders were playing in their playoff home away from home, and the partisan crowd played a big role, especially when Coatesville played a near perfect first half and took a 21-10 lead into the locker room.

“We knew the crowd was going to be behind us,” Ortega said.

“It was exciting,” Infante added. “I told our kids before the game that I don’t think we’ve seen a more electric crowd. It was loud, our players couldn’t hear each other — it was actually a lot of fun.”

Ortega’s son Ricky threw six TD tosses, and later acknowledged that the venue and the crowd ended up being something special.

“This was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” said the 16-year old sophomore. “I thank everybody in Coatesville for supporting us. We are very disappointed we didn’t win, but just playing in this game was the best feeling in my life.”

That kind of passionate fan base is one of the reasons the Raiders (13-2 overall) earned the right this fall to be called the top public school team in the Eastern side of the state. St. Joe’s entered the clash with a 26-game winning streak and a No. 7 national ranking, but Coatesville came within a few second half mistakes from completing a stunning upset.

“I wasn’t surprised with the crowd because our community loves us and we love them back,” Ricky Ortega said. “We fight for them and we trust they will always come out, and they did tonight.”

The big crowd was treated to a back and forth classic with a berth in the state title game hanging in the balance. Taking full advantage of it speedy skilled players, the Raiders continually worked to get on the edge in space, and the Hawks had all sorts of trouble keeping guys like Aaron Young, Avery Young, Dapree Bryant and Kahtero Summers in check.

“Everybody as talking about our defense before this game, but I knew we were going to have trouble with Coatesville’s speed,” Infante pointed out.

In all, the Raiders rolled up 559 total yards, against an opposing defense that allowed an average of 7.6 points per game though the first 12 games this season. In the first half alone, Coatesville’s point total equaled the most given up by St. Joe’s in any complete game this season.

And how’s this for impressive: the Raiders scored 49 points against a team that had surrendered just 92 the rest of the season.

“We had a great game plan, and scored a lot of points like we knew we would, but we were just one touchdown short,” Ricky Ortega said. “We just have to keep grinding so that next year we can get that extra touchdown.”

Yes, Coatesville went toe-to-toe with a national superpower, but in the end it was undone by some catastrophic second half mistakes it simply didn’t make in the opening half. At one point early in the third period, the Raiders were ahead 28-10, but the game started to turn.

First, Ortega was picked off, and a 72-yard return eventually led to a Hawks’ TD. And then later in the quarter, Bryant dropped a sure touchdown pass from Ortega.

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