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Neighbors Pottsgrove, Pottstown clash for District 1-4A championship

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District One Class 4A Championship Game: No. 2 Pottstown Trojans (6-5) vs. No. 1 Pottsgrove Falcons (10-1)

Where >> Phoenixville High School’s Washington Field, 7 p.m. Friday. Pottsgrove earned the right to host as the top seed, but with more rain in the forecast, no one wanted to risk a repeat of last Friday night’s rain-soaked semifinals.

“We’d have had nothing but standing water, puddles on the field,” said Pottsgrove’s coach Bill Hawthorne. “Phoenixville was gracious enough to host, and really it’s for not only the safety of the players but also the fans — this gives them a chance to see a high-quality football game rather than another Mud Bowl.”

How They Got Here >> Two-time defending district champion Pottsgrove survived a scare from Bishop Shanahan, 14-13, in a mud-soaked game last Friday. Pottstown claimed its first playoff victory in recent program history over Springfield Township, 28-13.

Last Meeting >> The Falcons thrashed Pottstown, 45-6, in Week 5 this season. The Falcons racked up 353 rushing yards on the evening, led by senior RB Isaiah Taylor, who had 194 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

Background >> There’s rarely any need to describe what’s at stake when these two schools meet. A rivalry between two schools separated by less than two miles pits childhood friends, teammates, and at some times even cousins against one another in a battle for neighborhood bragging rights.

And while the recent history has tilted in favor of the Falcons, Pottstown coach Mark Fischer insists his squad has their eyes on the big picture and won’t get caught up in those rivalries within the game.

“The approach we’re taking isn’t about where we stand against Pottsgrove, or the proximity of this rivalry,” he explained. “We view it as, we have another opponent Friday night, these are their tendencies, and here are the things we can do well.

“If we get too caught up in the Pottsgrove aspect, that’s when we struggle.”

That said, Fischer didn’t downplay the significance of the event. “It’s exciting for the players,” he said, “to see the effort and hard work pay off. I loved watching them celebrate after the win last Friday — it’s very rewarding.”

On the Pottsgrove end, the battle-tested Falcons are familiar with the stakes, having claimed the past two District 1 Class 4A titles. Does going against their crosstown rivals change anything?

“Just talking to our players this week — it’s special when these two teams get together in the regular season,” said Hawthorne. “It’s just more so when there’s a district championship on the line.

Our players have a lot of respect for the Pottstown kids, they grew up with them. At the same time, if we were to lose, our players know they’re going to hear about it not only this year, but quite possibly for the rest of their lives.

“It’s a respectful rivalry, but at the same time, it’s going to be a hard-hitting, fast-paced football game.”

Pottstown quarterback Josiah Wiggins. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

When Pottstown has the ball >> Asked for the key to last week’s semifinal win over Springfield Township, Fischer didn’t hesitate.

“We were in the shotgun most of the night,” he explained, “and our center, Destyn Snyder, was able to give us clean snaps every time. Springfield, they had some trouble on the exchange — ours were clean, which allowed us to focus on the rest of our offense’s execution.”

While most of that execution was on the ground (180 yards on 48 carries) the Trojans went to the air enough — despite the conditions — to force future opponents to view them as a multi-faceted offense. Quarterback Josiah Wiggins completed four of eight passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, and Nehemiah Figueroa also completed a 22-yard pass of his own.

The Darden brothers, Daniel and Dereck, accounted for three of the Trojans’ four scores, Daniel on a pair of short runs and Dereck via a 46-yard connection with Wiggins just before halftime. Hawthorne says his team will be on the lookout for even more new wrinkles in the Pottstown offense.

“This is a completely different team than we played earlier,” he said. “Wiggins has evolved into a top playmaker. Defensively, they’re giving more looks and are much more stout across the board, plus they always seem to have a trick play or some wrinkle that works for them on special teams.”

The story on defense for the Falcons begins with senior Ryan Bodolus, who dominated last week’s win over Bishop Shanahan. Bodolus registered two sacks and numerous other tackles, while forcing two fumbles (one of which he returned for a touchdown) and blocking the potential game-tying extra point. Hawthorne is not particularly prone to hyperbole, so his description of Bodolus’ performance as ‘one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen’ underscores the impact the defensive end had on the narrow outcome.

“The reality is, he’s doing things like this every game,” said Hawthorne, “but he’s become so consistent that it’s kind of old hat to those who watch him.”

Pottsgrove’s league-leading defense (10.1 points allowed per game) will be tasked with stopping Wiggins, fourth in the PAC in rushing with 827 yards and 12 TDs this year despite missing one game. When Wiggins does go to the air, he’ll look for Figueroa who’s been on the business end of about two-thirds of the Trojans’ completed passes this year.

Pottsgrove quarterback Jay Sisko bursts around the edge on a long carry against Pope John Paul II. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

When Pottsgrove has the ball >> Perhaps Hawthorne said it best, when asked for any players who might come from off the radar to make a big impact Friday.

“I mean,” he chuckled, “I think you’ll see a little bit of the same.”

‘The same’ refers to a punishing ground game that eats up the clock and allows a dominant offensive line to find its groove early and often blocking for PAC-leading rusher Isaiah Taylor (1,097 yards, 13 TD), who returned from a two-week absence last week with 179 yards and a score. Taylor is joined by QB Jay Sisko, who’s run for 659 yards and 11 scores of his own, plus senior backs Isaiah Glover and Jadore Colbert in rounding out a prolific, deep running game for the Falcons.

What ‘the same’ does not mean is an identical game plan from the first meeting. Hawthorne knows he can’t be content to simply ‘stick with what works’ and presume another one-sided victory.

“In a rivalry like this, they’re gonna do everything they can to mix it up—different looks, different wrinkles,” he said. “We have to not only be prepared for that, but be able to do the same. Otherwise, they can stuff our game plan simply on past knowledge.”

When Sisko does go to the air, Jimai Springfield and Bodolus, who plays tight end on offense, see the lion’s share of the targets.

Pottstown isn’t without its own defensive standouts, chief amongst them safety Figueroa, who leads the PAC with eight interceptions in 2018. The Dardens figure prominently on this side of the ball as well, Dereck as a hard-hitting linebacker who registered his 100th tackle last week, and Daniel as a shutdown corner.

The key for the Trojans will be withstanding the onslaught in the trenches from the experienced Falcons offensive line, featuring Nate Tornetta, Justin Adams, Manny Allen, Ethan McHugh, Darrian Seaman, and Bodolus. The Falcons’ rushing game is averaging 230 yards per contest, and reaching or exceeding that number Friday makes Pottstown’s path to an upset victory very tricky.

Details >> The winner will move on to battle the District 4 champion next Friday — either Jersey Shore or Selinsgrove —right back at Phoenixville High School.

A win would give Pottsgrove its fifth district championship since 2009 and third 4A crown in a row. Pottstown is in search of their first district crown.

Prediction >> The teams can’t catch a break with the weather forecast, as a band of heavy rain is expected to hit right around game time. This could impact the game in numerous ways, not the least of which is lessening the ability to attack through the air, which was shaping up to be a possible advantage for a Pottstown team who’s shown an increasing willingness to use QB Wiggins and

WR Figueroa as an emerging tandem since Wiggins’ return from injury.

Regardless of the conditions, Friday’s contest will likely show the progress made by Pottstown over the year, and it’s clear Hawthorne and the Falcons aren’t expecting a result like that of the previous two meetings (a 49-6 win in 2017, and 45-6 earlier this season.)

But the postseason is about execution and experience. The Falcons have been here the previous two years, and emphasize precise execution of a weather-proof game plan better than anyone. … Pottsgrove 34, Pottstown 13.

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