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GEOGHEGAN: Coatesville defense stands out, alongside powerhouse offense

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PERKASIE >> It’s easy to be seduced while watching Coatesville’s ultra-explosive offense. Let’s be honest, it’s intoxicating to see the Red Raiders roll up the points with seeming impunity.

It’s like marveling at the ever-increasing U.S. National Debt Clock in real time, or monitoring the scoreboard of the all-offense Denver Nuggets of the mid-1980s.

But on Friday, early in the District 1 6A title game, the offense needed a big assist, and Coatesville’s unsung defense was more than up to the challenge. You wouldn’t know it by the final score — 42-13 — but the defense kept the Raiders in it until the offense came around in the second half.

And North Penn’s final score came against the backups, meaning the Coatesville starting unit allowed just six points all night.

“A lot of people don’t know about us, but all I can say is that we like to hit and we play hard,” said senior defender Jimmy Limper.

Coatesville’s Tione Holmes and Jimmy Limper combine for a sack. (Nate Heckenberger – For Digital First Media)

“That whole defense is a group that believes,” added Coatesville head coach Matt Ortega. “(An opponent) may make a drive here there, but somebody is going to make a big play. Limper and Tione Holmes were just monsters tonight.”

With those two defensive ends leading the way, the second-seeded Raiders sacked No. 1 North Penn seven times, allowed just one score, and captured the programs second district crown in a row, and third since 2012.

“What’s scary is that (Coatesville) is so good on defense and nobody knows it because of how good they are on offense,” said Avon Grove head coach Harry O’Neill. “They have no holes. The defensive line and linebackers control the box and they can play man-to-man against anyone.”

In four postseason games so far, the Raiders’ top unit has allowed a combined 42 points, which is a tad over 10 points per game. And against some of the best offenses that District 1 can muster, Coatesville is allowing a respectable 252 yards per game, and the defense has forced a total of three fumbles and picked off six passes in four outings.

Coatesville gang tackles. (Nate Heckenberger – For Digital First Media)

“(North Penn) only had six points,” Ortega said. “They drove the field here and there, and we knew they were going to do that. But at the end of the day we kept them out of the end zone and that’s the name of the game.

“The big thing we talk about it being physical. The last two weeks on defense we’ve owned the line of scrimmage. We know we have our playmakers, but owning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is the difference this year from teams of the past.”

The defense made a statement right from the start on Friday at Pennridge’s Helman Field, helping overcome a slow start by the aforementioned high-octane Raider attack. And Tione Holmes set the tone, thwarting the first two North Penn possessions with a sack, followed by a tackle for loss.

Fellow defensive end Jimmy Limper then halted the Knights’ next march, into the red zone, with a clutch sack on fourth down. Three plays later, the Raiders opened the scoring and never trailed.

“We kind of go unnoticed,” Holmes acknowledged. “People kind of underrate us. But we are just our here trying to win. We are just fighting for our brothers.

“Early in the game we just kept telling the offense to keep their heads up and we’ll get them the ball back.”

And even when the defense faltered with two penalties that kept a drive alive for North Penn early in the second half of a still-competitive contest, the Raiders regrouped to force a turnover. With the Knights inside the Coatesville 10, junior defensive back Shamaur Hall pounced on a loose ball.

The Raiders’ offense then marched 95 yards to make it 28-6 heading into the final period, effectively ending any upset bid.

“At the half, I told our guys that it was as clear as day: throw out the schemes. What is going to matter in the second half is who wants it more,” Ortega said.

Coatesville’s Tione Holmes (Nate Heckenberger – For Digital First Media)

Only one postseason opponent so far – Ches-Mont foe Downingtown East – has managed to score more than 10 points against the Coatesville defense. And that certainly doesn’t surprise anybody in the Ches-Mont – like Bishop Shanahan head coach Paul Meyers.

“No matter how much you game-plan, no matter how much film you watch or how well you think you practiced that week, you cannot get prepared for what is going to hit you,” he said when asked about the Raiders. “They just overpower you in every aspect of the game.

“The defense is big and athletic.”

North Penn’s star runner Shamar Edwards had 120 yards in the ground Friday, but a week earlier he rolled up 313 against Downingtown West in the district semifinals.

And, once again, he never sniffed the end zone.

The win was the fourth District 1 Championship for Coatesville dating back to 1992. The last three, in the span of seven years, have all been under Ortega. When asked where his current defense ranks, Ortega said that he thinks the 2018 group is as god as the squad he had in 2012.

“That 2012 unit was special, and it’s close between those two,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens in the next two weeks before we can fully judge that.”

It was a reference, of course, to the fact that the Raiders have never won a state title in football. That 2012 team got the closest, advancing all the way to the state final before bowing out.

With two more victories — starting next week in the state semifinals against a Harrisburg team it has already beaten — Coatesville will be able to climb that last hill. And to get it done, you can be sure the undervalued Raiders’ defense will be called upon in a tough situation once again.

Neil Geoghegan is a staff writer for the Daily Local News and Pa. Prep Live. You can reach him at ngeoghegan@21st-centurymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NeilMGeoghegan.

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