Mike Ricci has been coaching high school football since 1986. So when he passes judgement on an opponent, it carries plenty of weight.
“Their offense is spectacular,” Ricci said this week. “They are the most talented team I think I’ve ever seen at the high school level.”
Ricci’s decree of Coatesville hits at the heart of the District 1 Class 6A final between third-seeded Garnet Valley and the No. 4 Raiders. The Jags are the favorite on the bracket, but the consensus around Southeastern PA is that the Raiders are the team to beat, even if a blemish on their difficult schedule and the apparent lack of mathematical corroboration for their excellence relegates them to a road trip.
Though Ricci is willing to recognize the credentials of Friday night’s opponent, that doesn’t diminish the talent his team brings.
His assessment also drills to the crux of Garnet Valley’s voyage to the District 1 final for the second straight year, a run that includes six playoff wins. As a group, Ricci said his team, imbued with the spirit of the season, has taken time to appreciate its accomplishments. But the group is also hungry for more, and Coatesville stands in the way of that.
“We have a fantastic opportunity ahead of us,” Ricci said. “We have so much respect for Coatesville and what they’re able to do, but we also have a lot of belief in ourselves and what we hope to take from this opportunity.”
The order of the day Friday will be trying to stop the Raiders (12-1), who have won 11 straight games. Coatesville has scored fewer than 34 points on just one occasion this season — in its loss, 21-14, to District 3’s Cumberland Valley, which also finds itself in the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinal round Saturday. On the season, Coatesville has scored 581 points, a tidy 400 more than opposition. That works out to an average of 44.7 points scored per outing.
The orchestrator is star sophomore quarterback Ricky Ortega, who has thrown for 2,618 yards and 34 touchdowns against two — yes, just two — interceptions. The coach’s son has also run for 796 yards.
His supporting cast is stellar, led by Dapree Bryant, who is just 55 yards shy of 1,000 receiving. Bryant has scored 18 touchdowns on offense this season, 14 on receptions. Kahtero Summers, Avery Young and Mekhi Alexander round out the passel of wideout threats.
And if you subdue the passing game, then there’s still Aaron Young, with 1,600 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, to contend with.
All that is to say that Ricci didn’t arrive at his “best team ever” conclusion without a surfeit of supporting evidence.
Intimidating as that sounds, there’s also a reason why Ricci’s Jags (12-1) are in a district final. They might not score quite as explosively as Coatesville, but their defense is in line with the Raiders’ stinginess, having allowed just 15.5 points per contest to Coatesville’s 13.9. The Jags have proven the ability to tangle with high-scoring teams — like quarterfinal victim North Penn and semifinal conquest Pennridge — with a rushing game led by Matt Lassik and Danny Guy that controls the clock and churns out yardage.
That ability to monopolize possession is part of the strategy to bottling up Coatesville.
“How do we try to stop that? We have to move the ball on offense,” Ricci said. “Our best defense is going to be our offense.”
Garnet Valley has an edge in the intangibles department, having been here last year. The 2016 run involved four road games, culminating with a 48-38 loss to a North Penn team whose blue-chip content compares favorably with Coatesville. Ricci hopes the knowhow will serve his group well.
“I think the takeaway from last year is we absolutely did belong in that game,” he said. “We were the low seed and going through on the road and unexpected to do anything last year, but when we got to that game, it was a 10-point game and a great high school football game. I think that experience helped us tremendously this year.”
Regardless of what is awaiting the Jags Friday night, Ricci’s team has authored consecutive outstanding seasons. And that perspective has lent a certain calm to their preparations.
“We definitely are very proud of where we are right now,” Ricci said. “It’s a tremendous accomplishment to get to the 6A championship game two consecutive years. We lost a lot of guys from last year and we’ve had a lot of underclassmen who had to step up this year. We’re very aware of what we’ve done, and we don’t take this opportunity for granted by any stretch.”