WESTTOWN — It’s a brisk Wednesday evening and two portable light stands illuminate the middle portion of West Chester Rustin’s practice field.
The Golden Knights, with grungy uniforms pressed over hoodies and sweatpants (and even one flannel shirt) run through their team defense session, chasing scout teamers who replicate Penn Wood’s playbook.
As the sun descends, the temperature follows and the dark blue sky mixed with the dingy lighting makes for an almost romantic scene, if there ever was one on a football field.
The coaches rave about the old-school atmosphere after practice, one they hope they get to experience for a couple more weeks. With the senior class leading the way, this may just be the fairytale season everyone at Rustin dreamed about.
“What’s great about this class is, I coached all these guys in freshman basketball, I’ve been coaching them for four years,” Rustin coach Mike St. Clair said. “They’re like sons to me. They’re just a pleasure to come out and coach. They make coaching fun.”
West Chester Rustin heads to Penn Wood, Saturday at 6 p.m., to compete in the District 1-5A semifinals. It’s the first time since 2010 the Golden Knights have advanced that far and their two wins this postseason match as many as they had, total, since that run eight years ago.
Since Penn Wood plays on a grass field — which will likely be muddy after Thursday’s freak fall snowstorm — St. Clair and his staff decided to bring in lights for the practice field instead of working out on the well-lit field at Rustin’s stadium.
Deprived of big names, Rustin (9-2) has done it as a team, outscoring its first two playoff opponents, 70-6.
“Coach St. said this is one of the closest teams that’s come through Rustin,” senior quarterback Will Pileggi said. “We play as 11, not just one superstar. We’re great friends off the field and it shows on the field.”
Pileggi embodies that vintage Rustin player — undersized, tough, smart and competitive. His stature unassuming and his stats underwhelming, Pileggi counters with a moxie that makes him a natural leader. After throwing eight interceptions in his first eight games, the senior hasn’t been picked off in his the last three, where he’s thrown for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
“Will’s the real deal,” St. Clair said. “His stats aren’t that impressive, however I think he’s one of the best players in the area. He can do everything. He can run, he can throw, he’s a genius in the classroom and he’s one of the most athletic kids out there.”
Pileggi, who runs winter track and plays lacrosse in the spring, is the norm on this Rustin team, which is built on multi-sport athletes.
The range of athleticism pays off as many Knights play both sides of the ball, as well.
Michael Covert, the lead running back with 937 yards and 16 TDs on the ground, is second on the team with three interceptions from his spot at cornerback. Covert scored four touchdowns, two on the ground and two through the air, last week against Academy Park to help Rustin get to this point.
“It means a lot,” Covert said. “This could be our last game. We put a lot of work in the last four years and it feels good to have a chance to do something big this year.”
The workload does not fall solely on Covert, as Rustin has been able to complement him with a trio of other runners. Nick Madonna had 743 yards and 10 scores on the ground before missing last week due to an injury. Owen Walsh stepped in and had a career-best 99 yards. Collin Hurley ran the ball 12 times, a career high, as Rustin put up 236 rush yards.
“It’s very motivational to see a guy like Sean Hopkins going all out, both ways, and tearing it up on both sides of the ball,” Hurley said. “If someone gets hurt we know it’s next man up and we have someone just as able to fill in.”
Hopkins is the enforcer on the squad, doubling as tight end and defensive end. He leads the team with three TD receptions, on just 11 catches, and his presence on the defensive side is part of the reason Rustin hasn’t allowed an offensive touchdown this postseason.
“All 11 of us are close friends,” Hopkins said. “It’s a team effort every time. We’re team tackling on defense and the offensive line is working together on offense. It’s a whole team effort.”
Rustin defeated Penn Wood in September, 43-28. As a program, Rustin is 4-0 in postseason rematches.
Since this senior class arrived at Rustin, the Knights have gone from missing the playoffs in 2015 to losing in the first round in a forgettable 2016 season to winning one playoff game last year.
The progression is evident and the opportunity is there, and for St. Clair and his senior class, there is nothing they’d like more than to crank those lights back up on the practice field and get back to work for as long as they can.
“The last couple years we didn’t meet expectations,” St. Clair said. “This group is playing Rustin football and carrying on the tradition of playing into November. This is a very good group of seniors.”
“The juice is there for us,” he added. “Every game is meaningful and they’re ready to go.”
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