Gionta getting first taste of another grudge match

Ray Gionta has seen plenty of Thanksgiving rivalries in his day, as a player and coach.

He grew up as part of the bygone St. James-Chester rivalry, and coached Boyertown in its Turkey Day battle with Spring-Ford. Through his journeys as an assistant, he took part in holiday tilts between Neumann-Goretti and South Philadelphia, and the shuttered St. Pius X and Pottsgrove.

When he was named the head coach of Sun Valley back in April, though, it quickly became clear to Gionta that the grudge match he was stepping into was something unique.

“Ever since I took over at Sun Valley, the talk has been about Chichester,’ Gionta said by phone last week. “When I was at St. James, I don’t think we talked about beating Chester in April. It’s not as intense as this is.’

Gionta’s first experience of the Sun Valley-Chichester rivalry will come in the game’s 47th installment Thursday.

The Vanguards’ first-year head man is tasked with turning around some uncharacteristic struggles in the rivalry. Sun Valley (4-7) has lost just five times to their neighborhood rivals since 1992, but two of those setbacks have come in the last three years.

For a pair of teams that have endured stretches of losing six of seven games at some point this season (Chi’s stretch is ongoing), Thursday represents a chance to salvage something from a bumpy campaign.

Both teams bridged the gap to Thanksgiving with Week 11 games. Sun Valley’s was a gutsy 34-28 win at Harriton, capped by a Gabe Boccella quarterback sneak touchdown with 25 seconds to play. It also featured 279 yards from Kijana Gordon on the ground.

That doesn’t necessarily bode well for a Chichester defense that, while it has had moments of brilliance this season, was gashed for a 304 yards by Gionta’s former pupil, Marple Newtown’s Adrian Sapnas, in a 49-7 setback last time out.

Both coaches face the challenge of meting out practices between games to keep their teams focused. For Gionta, that meant a week-by-week progression, gradually increasing intensity and the installation of game plans.

Chichester coach Ryan Smith, in his fifth rivalry showdown, has learned how to think outside the box.

“What I’ve seen is that the game speaks for itself from a competition perspective,’ Smith said. “The challenge for us is to create a practice schedule that is engaging for the kids. We did an intrasquad scrimmage the other day, and whether it’s when to pull back or ramp the level up, it’s being creative as far as the schedule.’

The message from both sides is the same: Getting the players to game day might present a challenge, but there’s little the coaches need to do to ensure their troops are amped up on Thanksgiving morning.

“They’re looking forward to playing in a rivalry atmosphere that you only get when you play on Thanksgiving or in the playoffs,’ Gionta said. “They’re excited for the opportunity to be in the spotlight.’

“We always talk about it being a last chance,’ Smith said. “It’s something to hang your hat on for the season, something to hang your hat on for a career if you’re a senior.’

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