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Mercury Week 8 Preview: Pottsgrove doesn’t miss a beat; puts unbeaten record on line vs. upstart Upper Merion

Days after being named to the position in February, Bill Hawthorne summed up his prospects as the new head football coach at Pottsgrove.

“Anyone who tries to replace Rick Pennypacker,” he stated, “is going to fail.”

Indeed, the now-retired Pennypacker casts a long shadow at the Grove, retiring last year after 29 seasons that featured nine Pioneer Athletic Conference championships and four District 1 titles.

Best of all, he left the program in strong standing for his protégé Hawthorne, who’s led the Falcons to a 7-0 start (3-0 PAC Frontier) this season.

“I’m not going to try to fix anything that isn’t broken,” Hawthorne said. “Rick was my mentor — I spent 22 years with him between playing and coaching.”

Hawthorne’s been able to keep a good thing going, while adding his own flavor via a few wrinkles. “The reality is, we want to play great defense, ball-control offense, and strong special teams,” he simplified. “Rick preached those things, as most coaches do, and we’re continuing along those lines.”

Before the season, Hawthorne alluded to the possibility of opening up the offense a bit, perhaps getting closer to a 60-40 run/pass ratio. In the same interview, however, he admitted he’d ‘run the ball all day’ if given the proper personnel on the offensive line and in the backfield.

Pottsgrove’s Isaiah Glover (5) and Ryan Bodolus (81) bottle up Pope John Paul II’s AJ Natale on a carry. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

Sure enough, the Falcons are equipped with four two-way linemen — Nate Tornetta, Justin Adams, Ryan Bodolus, and Darrian Seaman—who Hawthorne calls the ‘heart and soul’ of the team. The quartet has paved the way for Pottsgrove’s league-leading 216 rushing yards per contest, while anchoring a defense allowing only eight points per game (also tops in the PAC).

“Including our kicker and punter, we’ve replaced 14 starters,” Hawthorne said. “Guys like Khaliym Smith, Jayden Tucker, Nijier Owens — they’re all first-year starters who’ve been an instrumental part of this senior class.”

When the Falcons have the ball, the offensive line—which includes the four aforementioned two-way players plus left guard Manny Allen and center Ethan McHugh—has been opening holes for Isaiah Taylor (leading the PAC with 11 rush TDs), Isaiah Glover, and bruising fullback Jadore Colbert. The graduation of record-setting RB Rahsul Faison has led the Falcons to adopt something more of a committee approach to running the ball, but the execution and consistency of the offense has remained consistent. Senior dual-threat QB Jay Sisko deserves much of the credit.

“Jay is the ideal Pottsgrove quarterback — he makes big plays at big times,” said Hawthorne. “Lots of guys can make big plays, but the ability to make those plays when the game is on the line sets Jay apart.”

Pottsgrove quarterback Jay Sisko. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

For instance, two weeks ago the Falcons faced their stiffest Frontier Division test to date, when Pope John Paul II came to Rick Pennypacker Field (yes, even the home turf is named in honor of Hawthorne’s predecessor) and took a 28-21 lead to the fourth quarter. Faced with a 3rd and long with four minutes to play, Sisko fired his only completion of the evening down the left sideline to Jimai Springfield for 30 yards and a critical first down. The Falcons would tie the game two plays later, and go on to win in the final minute on a short Sisko TD run.

“He makes the throws, the runs — he audibles into plays that put us in the right position,” summarized Hawthorne.

This week brings another stern divisional test in the form of surprising Upper Merion (5-2, 3-0 PAC Frontier). The Vikings’ breakthrough in coach Victor Brown’s second year has come in a manner familiar to Pottsgrove fans. All the Falcons’ gaudy PAC-leading stats (fewest points allowed, fewest rushing and passing yards allowed) come with the Vikings nipping at their heels in second place in all categories. Linebacker Mark Picariello leads a stingy unit that wants to make Friday a Senior Night to remember.

Bob Raines–Digital First Media
Upper Merion’s Mike Zelli.

The Vikings are equipped with two running backs who can attack the Falcons defense in Mike Zelli, who went over 100 yards last week against Pottstown, and Zaire Savage. Two-way threats Marc Clayton and Taiyan Lobban each scored a touchdown and caused a turnover for the Upper Merion defense.

“That’s a very good team — stout,” said Hawthorne. “Victor Brown has done a heck of a job with that team—they’re a scary squad right now.”

A Pottsgrove win clinches a third straight Frontier Division title for the Falcons, while an Upper Merion victory would push next week’s showdown with Pope John Paul II into the championship conversation.

Pottstown quarterback Josiah Wiggins (12) is congratulated after a long touchdown run in the second half against Octorara. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

Pope John Paul (6-1, 2-1 PAC Frontier) at Pottstown (4-3, 1-2 PAC Frontier) >> The Golden Panthers need to win and hope for some help from Upper Merion to keep the race alive in the Frontier Division. But in order to beat a resilient Pottstown squad, PJP coach Rory Graver says his team needs to correct their approach from last week.

“We have to learn from last week,” said Graver, referring to a win over Phoenixville that featured a lackluster first-half performance from the Panthers. “We’ll be in trouble if we repeat that against Pottstown.”

Graver hopes for another strong effort from his defensive line in containing Pottstown’s Josiah Wiggins, perhaps the greatest ‘big-play’ threat among the area’s plethora of dual-threat quarterbacks. When the Panthers have the ball, QB Kamal Gray and his array of productive receivers will need to know where Pottstown safety Nehemiah Figueroa lurks at all times. Figueroa leads the PAC with four interceptions this season, two of them coming last week against Upper Merion.

“[Gray] has a great arm, and knows how to avoid the blitz,” said Pottstown coach Mark Fischer. “We need to stop PJP from making big plays in the passing game.”

Aside from Figueroa, Jahzeel Watson and Dereck Darden will be key to the Trojans’ chances of quieting the Panthers’ attack.

Spring-Ford (6-1, 3-0 PAC Liberty) at Owen J. Roberts (5-2, 2-1 Liberty) >> If the Wildcats want to celebrate a second straight Homecoming victory over the Rams, PAC leading rusher Marcus Martin likely holds the key — but not in the way you might think.

Everyone knows of Martin’s offensive prowess, but his biggest threat this week may be in the return game against a Rams unit that surrendered a 97-yard kick return TD last week to Boyertown’s Jamie Moccia. A subsequent 94-yard effort from Moccia was negated for an illegal block.

“We’re obviously not pleased with the kickoff coverage,” acknowledges Spring-Ford coach Chad Brubaker, “and we’re working extra hard to shore that up.”

Offensively, Brubaker hopes for continued development from junior QB Ryan Engro, fresh off a six TD performance, in an atmosphere that befuddled Spring-Ford last year, as they fell 33-0 to OJR. Engro’s ever-evolving array of offensive targets will be looking to conquer the challenge of the Wildcats’ defense and avenge last year’s result, which Brubaker simply called a ‘disaster.’

Boyertown (1-6, 0-3 PAC Liberty) at Perkiomen Valley (5-2, 3-0 PAC Liberty) >> It doesn’t get any easier for the Boyertown defense, which goes from a rough outing at Spring-Ford last week to two-time defending PAC champion Perkiomen Valley and a dynamic offense looking to rebound from a somewhat lackluster outing last week at Methacton.

The headlines came on offense and special teams against SF for the Bears, who saw sophomore Connor Rohrbach register a TD catch and a 74-yard TD pass to Jamie Moccia, who broke a school record in his own right with a 97-yard kickoff return for a score.

The Vkings hope to celebrate Homecoming with another stellar defensive outing led by Brett Kuiken and Jon Moccia. Coach Rob Heist emphasized the importance of stopping Jamie Moccia and Boyertown’s running attack.

Upper Perkiomen (1-6, 0-3 PAC Frontier) at Phoenixville (2-5, 0-3 PAC Frontier) >> Phoenixville’s Travis Pannella looks to follow up last week’s 191-yard effort against Pope John Paul II with another strong outing against an Indians unit that’s struggled against the run all year. The only caveat? He may not be the featured back this week. The Phantoms alternate between Pannella and Alex Washington almost as if by design — but coach Don Grinstead says that’s not the case.

“We don’t have a lead back,” he maintained. “Whatever is working in the offense — Travis had a strong day [against PJP]… next week, it may be Alex’s turn.”

The Indians’ loss to Pottsgrove wasn’t without its bright spots, as youngsters such as Joe Vera (12 yards per carry) got valuable game experience.

Methacton (1-6, 1-2 PAC Liberty) at Norristown (1-6, 0-3 PAC Liberty), 1 p.m. Saturday >> The visiting Warriors continue to improve each week, taking defending champion Perkiomen Valley into a tight game in the fourth quarter last week before succumbing, 18-9. Dave Lotier’s squad has clearly benefited from playing one of District One’s most demanding schedules, as evidenced by limiting the prolific PV offense. Offensively, Larry Dickerson continues to emerge as a reliable downfield threat with a 25-yard touchdown catch last week.

For the Eagles, their final home game of 2018 offers an opportunity to reward their hard work with a W. Similar to the Warriors, Norristown has offered stern tests to some PAC stalwarts, falling 14-7 to Perkiomen Valley and playing Owen J. Roberts tough last week in a 25-12 loss. Daniel Watson leads the Eagles’ offense as a dual-threat QB, while Xzavier Gorski broke through last week with 60 receiving yards.

Muhlenberg (0-7, 0-3 Berks I) at Daniel Boone (3-4, 0-3 Berks 1) >> The Blazers look to snap a two-game slide against winless Muhlenberg. To do so, they’ll look to get their normally strong running attack back on track behind Chase Lacey, Tanner Vanderslice, and QB Tommy Buchert. The Blazers were held to just 80 yards of offense in last week’s loss to Governor Mifflin.

The Hun School (3-1) at Hill School (0-5) >> The Raiders make the trip to Pottstown from Princeton, N.J., where the Rams will be looking to rebound from last week’s loss to Peddie School and register their first victory of the 2018 campaign.

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