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PAC’s Frontier Division continues its rise with strong showing in crossover play

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When Don Grinstead left his head coaching position at Pottstown High School in 2015, the idea of the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s ‘crossover week’ was just coming into formation.

“Back then, everybody was playing everybody,” he recalled. “And the frustration among the ‘small schools’ was as simple as depth. We’re fielding rosters of between 35-45 players, and the big schools had so much more depth due of the sheer size of their schools.”

Grinstead wasn’t alone in this feeling. The school of thought led to the creation of divisions within the PAC. This past weekend, the ‘small-school’ Frontier Division — featuring Grinstead’s new charges, the Phoenixville Phantoms, who topped Methacton 14-7 — gained quite a feather in their cap, winning four of six games during the third annual ‘crossover week.’

Phoenixville new head coach Don Grinstead. (Barry Taglieber – For Digital First Media)

When Grinstead returned this winter to take over at Phoenixville, he walked back into an entirely new PAC. In 2016, the conference added two schools — Norristown and Upper Merion — who fell into different classifications in the state’s new system that grouped schools, based on enrollment, from Class A to Class 6A. The additions left the PAC with 12 schools — six in Class 6A; six that fell anywhere from 3A to 5A.

Thus the league was divided into two divisions. The Liberty Division would host the ‘big’ 6A schools, while the Frontier Division would be home to the ‘small’ 3A, 4A and 5A schools. PAC teams would play a round-robin against their own division, then conclude the regular season with a crossover game against their competitive counterpart from the opposing division (first-place Liberty plays first-place Frontier, second-place Liberty plays second-place Frontier, and so on).

The 2016 and 2017 seasons weren’t particularly kind to the Frontier Division, as the big schools rolled up a cumulative 11-1 record in the crossover matchups, including Perkiomen Valley’s two PAC championship victories.

But while the Vikings claimed a third consecutive title this past Friday in their win over Pottsgrove, the rest of the Frontier Division put some icing on the cake for their 2018 regular season, winning four of the other five matchups. What’s more, five of the Frontier Division’s six schools qualified for the postseason in their respective classifications.

“I thought this week was our offensive line’s best performance this season,” said Pottstown head coach Mark Fischer after his squad’s come-from-behind 19-14 win over Norristown that gave the Trojans their first district berth since the new system was enacted. “It showed the effort and determination of our players.”

In perhaps the most competitive of the games, Upper Merion cemented its 5A playoff berth — and earned a first-round home game — by avenging a regular-season loss to Owen J. Roberts with a 29-27 victory. Meanwhile the Wildcats finished their season at 6-4 with the heartbreaking distinction of being the No. 17 team in a 6A field that accommodates 16 teams for district playoffs.

Norristown quarterback Nick DeNolfi is sacked by Upper Merion’s Dontae Slocum during a game earlier this season. (Gene Walsh – Digital First Media)

“We were down early, but our kids fight,” said UM coach Victor Brown. “They are so resilient, and that’s how you win games against tough opponents.”

Upper Perkiomen also avenged a regular-season loss to Boyertown with a resounding 35-8 victory Friday night in Red Hill. But the Indians’ coach didn’t allow the victory to color his overall feelings.

“After the way we lost to Boyertown to start the year, it was a real boost for us to end the season with a win against them,” said Tom Hontz.

“But I think our (Frontier Division) elite teams are still behind the (Liberty Division’s) upper-echelon teams, and when I look at what happened with OJR — this year’s crossover games were kind of detrimental to some of our conference’s playoff hopes.”

Upper Perkiomen’s Tyrese Reid looks for running room during a game against Pottsgrove earlier this season. (Thomas Nash – Digital First Media)

For the Frontier schools, while crossover week provides an opportunity to see how they measure up with the ‘big boys,’ the new system more importantly allows for an even playing field throughout the regular season, and an opportunity to compete for district playoff standing against opponents with similar depth and roster size.

“The hardest part for me,” said Grinstead, remembering back to the pre-divisional format days, “was we’d play 4—5 big schools within a six-week span. It’s hard to overcome the amount of wear and tear that puts on a small roster.

“So by the time we got around to playing like-sized schools, we were never fully healthy.”

But what about the Liberty Division? Obviously, the playoff push reaches a fever pitch in the final week of the regular season, so the larger schools are at an automatic disadvantage when playing non-6A opponents, due to the reduced number of win points teams receive from playing schools in lower classifications. Does the new tradition offer any benefits to mitigate that sacrifice?

“When we originally went to two divisions, the concept was to go out and schedule non-division games outside the league, hopefully win some games and thereby bring playoff points into the league,” said Chad Brubaker, head coach of Spring-Ford. Brubaker’s Rams were one of two Liberty Division teams to claim a Week 10 victory, topping Pope John Paul II, 42-21.

“Once the divisions happened, some schools chose to schedule teams from the other division in the name of tradition or rivalries, etc. I’ve always felt it should be one or the other. We’ve had numerous (rematch) games over the past few years, which hurts everyone on the cusp of going to the playoffs.”

Brubaker said he does take the crossover into consideration when making non-league scheduling decisions, especially since the aspect of playoff points is magnified in the final week of the regular season. But does he feel that Spring-Ford and other 6A schools are hurt by the “pick on someone your own size” stigma?

“You have to beat the team on your schedule,” he emphasized.

And in the end, that one factor matters than any divisional scoreboard. Crossover Week was never meant to be a referendum on which is the stronger division. If that were the idea, no single data point would outweigh the fact that Perkiomen Valley—a Liberty Division squad—claimed the PAC title for the third time in as many years as the two-division format has been in place. But taken as a whole, there are clear benefits to dividing the league into two divisions and allowing like-sized schools to play one another—both for the sake of playoff points and competitiveness.

“I don’t know if the (Frontier Division’s) 4-2 record this year is a definitive statement of ‘see, this works!’” Grinstead concluded. “But I do believe playing the crossover at the end—essentially, a one-game season—makes it more favorable for all of us.”

Offensive Player of the Week >> Ryan Engro tied TJ Pergine’s single-season record for TD passes thrown in a season at Spring-Ford as he threw for four more scores in the Rams’ 42-21 win over Pope John Paul II.

Spring-Ford quarterback Ryan Engro cuts into a running lane as Perkiomen Valley’s Zach Lomonaco pursues during a game earlier this season. (MJ McConney – Digital First Media)

Engro’s next TD toss will give him sole possession of the single-season record. He currently stands at 27 TD passes in 2018, tied with PJP’s Kamal Gray for the PAC lead.

Defensive Player(s) of the Week >> Perkiomen Valley’s defense held powerful Pottsgrove under five yards per carry while Austin Rowley, Randy Washington, and Zack Lomanaco added interceptions as the Vikings three-peated as PAC champions, traveling to Pottsgrove and earning a 35-17 victory over the Falcons.

Perkiomen Valley’s Doug Lingo (13) and Jake Sterling (56) bring pressure in the backfield against Pottsgrove quarterback Jay Sisko during last week’s game. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

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