CONCORD — Only minutes earlier, Radnor High’s football team had defeated Springfield. Already, then, the countdown had begun. In seven days, Garnet Valley would visit Prevost Field. In seven days, the Raiders would be defined.
Though Radnor had not watched one film of the Jaguars, had not peeked at one scouting report, had not to that point dared even to mouth “Beat Garnet Valley” through their facemasks, the situation was clear. No Central League opponent, not this year, not in many years, would be as tough.
How did they know that?
“Reputation,” said Matt Cohen, the dynamic Radnor running back. “Reputation throughout the whole league, about them being the big school, the biggest, the 6A school, the team beating everyone. We know we have to come out with our ‘A’ game this entire week if we want to have a chance with them.”
Mike Ricci is the Jags’ coach, and has been since 1986, when he began to build that reputation that has been threaded through the Central League and beyond. So when he hears such stories, he smiles, appreciating the respect, understanding how it was achieved.
Ricci’s Jags won the Central League in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013, were PIAA Class 3-A finalists in 2007 and won district championships in 2006 and 2007. But he doesn’t believe as much in a Maroon Mystique, to twist a longstanding Central League theme, as he does in the methods that have made the Jags so widely admired.
For long before the rest of the league braces for the Jags, the Jags literally had been lining up for access to the fitness floor, doing some bracing of their own.
“I’m really proud of the program we’ve built here at Garnet Valley and most proud of the kids who make up the program,” Ricci said. “And one of the things we talk to the kids about every year is that their job is to continue the tradition of excellence that was established before you. And they take that to heart.”
Ricci rejects comparing Garnet Valley’s best teams, aware that each has a particular endearing trait. This year, the difference is muscle, with strength coach John Paul Battiste reporting to Ricci that no Jaguars ever have been as successful at lifting heavy objects. For that, and for a rushing game that literally began the season with a 14-play, no-turnover, no-pass touchdown march against Unionville, Ricci and assistants Rich Boyd Jr., Jeff Allison, Greg Mink, Lance Panarello, Julius Flynn, Marc Panepinto, Paul Graham, Dave Wrezesniewski, Rick Stroup, Erik Van Wyk, Mike Frawley, George White, Jeff Hill, Craig Stephenson and Battiste just may have produced the best team in the proud history of Garnet Valley football. At 7-0 and 6-0 in the Central, the Jags have had only two scares, but won 14-7 at Haverford and 6-0 at Springfield.
“We can be something special,” quarterback Cole Palis said. “We just have to take it one day at a time, one game at a time. And we can be special.”
One issue: That next game is at Radnor, which is 6-1 and 5-1 in the Central, having lost to Haverford but having won that Springfield game by 35-23. An emphasis on youth-development programs finally has yielded Tom Ryan a 25-senior program and a bubbling, Garnet Valley-level confidence.
“Radnor is very impressive,” Ricci said. “I’m thrilled that Radnor is having a great season. I love when different teams in the league step up and have great years. They are a fun team to watch. And they are really playing at a high level right now.”
Garnet Valley is averaging 422.9 yards per game, tops in Delaware County. Radnor, at 370.6, is third. The Jags average 37.6 points, Radnor 33.9. Garnet Valley has Delco’s third best defense, Radnor its sixth.
“We know,” Ryan said, “Garnet is Garnet.” But Garnet is Garnet for more than the stats. That distinction has been developing for generations under Ricci, who has come to coach the sons of his earliest players.
“I can already see it in the younger kids, the sophomores and juniors,” Jags senior running back Colin Robinson said. “Once we graduate, I can see them carrying on that tradition.”
With that tradition, though, comes a challenge.
“We know that we’re going to get everybody’s best game, no matter what,” said the Jags’ Bucknell-bound defensive end Cade Brennan. “Teams prepare for us like they do for nobody else. So we definitely know we have a target on our back for every game.”
That includes Friday on the Main Line.
“We know they have a good defensive line,” said senior lineman Kyle McCullough. “Their linebackers like to play fast, and that’s what we are working on this week. We played Haverford and Springfield. Those are two great teams. And we’re looking forward to playing Radnor.”
Haverford, which has split with Radnor and Garnet Valley, and Upper Darby each have one loss. But both will be at least a half-step behind in the race until they collide on Thanksgiving. So by Saturday, either Garnet Valley or Radnor (with the head-to-head tiebreaker) will have the No. 1, foam-finger rights.
“Luckily we get to play at home,” Ryan said. “We’ve been on the road for three weeks. I don’t want to say we are getting used to playing on the road, but everybody loves to play at home, so we are excited to do that.”
Garnet Valley, however, is comfortable in defining spots.
“We were down, 35-7, to North Penn in the third quarter last year in the playoffs and came back to win, 36-35,” Ricci said. “After the game, one of the officials said, ‘Coach, your guys never wavered for one second. They never thought they couldn’t win the game.’ And it’s true. Because of what’s come before them, our guys believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to do, everything will come out our way. It doesn’t always mean that it does. But that belief is there.
“And that belief is absolutely critical in difficult situations.”
To have it spread around a very balanced conference helps, too.