Sun Valley stayed positive when times were tough

ASTON >> As the losses piled, and the frustration mounted, Sun Valley players kept telling themselves one thing, over and over again.

“Stay positive,” senior defensive end Wali Sabree said. “No matter what.”

There was nothing the Vanguards could do to erase the 0-5 record. And, boy, some of those defeats were heartbreakers.

In Week 3, against Upper Merion, the game ended when Sun Valley, with goal to go, turned the ball over in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Final score: Upper Merion 14, Vanguards 13.

Then, the following week, Sun Valley was eyeing a victory against Oxford on homecoming night. The stars were aligned, too, until the Oxford kicker drilled a 27-yard field goal with 16 seconds to play. Final score: Oxford 23, Vanguards 21.

After Week 5, the Vanguards easily could have been sitting at 2-3.

“That’s what kept us motivated,” said junior running back Jon Kester. “We kept moving forward and didn’t look back.”

While it’s probably too late to salvage a District One Class AAA playoff spot, the Vanguards are finally becoming the team they always believed they could be. With back-to-back victories, including a thrilling 26-20 overtime decision over Kennett two weeks ago, the Vanguards are headed in the right direction.

“Just all the work we’ve put in since August, we just know we’ve got to stay focused and keep pushing,” said Kester, who is the nephew of Matt Kester, an excellent running back at Sun Valley in the mid-1990s.

Bobby Koons (guard/linebacker), Logan Markley (tackle) and Anthony Ruggiero (center) anchor an offensive line that was considered a strength coming into the year. The Vanguards had four returning starters at the position, and the chemistry among the unit is apparent. With the offensive line opening lanes, the Vanguards are averaging 222 yards rushing per game, which ranks in the top-10 in the county.

Kester is the workhorse. He is the fourth-leading rusher in Delco with 825 yards and nine touchdowns. Injuries to the running back corps opened the door for Caliph Jones and Mike Windsor, who have produced whenever Kester is in need of a spell.

“Most of us on the line started last year, and I think that was a huge help for us coming into this year,” said Koons, a senior. “I feel like we’re really comfortable playing together and we’re bonding a lot more.”

Meanwhile, Sabree has developed into a fierce pass rusher. He was all over the field in last week’s 25-6 win over Octorara, recording three sacks and a pass deflection.

“I thought I had more (sacks),” Sabree said with a smile. “Seemed like it.”

Sun Valley's Wali Sabree, left, and running back Jon Kester have led by example on and off the field for the Vanguards, who are chasing after their third straight win tonight at high-powered West Chester East.
Sun Valley’s Wali Sabree, left, and running back Jon Kester have led by example on and off the field for the Vanguards, who are chasing after their third straight win tonight at high-powered West Chester East.

Sabree has the build of a young Shawn Oakman, the Penn Wood All-Delco who has become one of the premier defensive ends in the country at Baylor.

“Last year was his first year playing high school football,” coach Ray Gionta said. “He played defense last year, and he didn’t play all the time, and now this year we work him in on offense from time to time. He’s raw and he has great potential. He’s got a nice frame on him, too.”

At 6-3, 215 pounds, Sabree has excelled against the pass and run. He credits his development to the coaching of assistant Rudy Cerami, a former Sun Valley standout who played professionally in the Arena Football League with the Philadelphia Soul.

“I started a little bit last year, but not a whole lot,” he said. “What changed for me this year was that I grew a couple inches. I’ve always been big, though. I think I also got a little bit faster and we had Coach Cerami come in this year, and he taught me a lot of new moves.”

Gionta talked about the youth of his team finding its way during those difficult first five weeks. After all, the Vanguards have only five returning starters who are seniors, Sabree, Markley, Ruggiero and Koons among the group. When times were tough, Gionta’s seniors continued to lead by example.

“When you have a young team, the kids have to look up to those guys a little bit,” Gionta said. “We’re still developing some things as we go along, but those guys continue to work hard every day.”

Next on the schedule for the Vanguards is West Chester East (3-4), which sits in fourth place in the Ches-Mont League National Division. The Vanguards are in the American Division with a 1-2 record against their divisional opponents.

East was on the wrong end of a 59-49 shootout with undefeated Downingtown West last weekend.  Sun Valley will have to contend with quarterback Jon Jon Roberts, who was 31-of-40 for 363 yards and four touchdowns in the Week 8 loss. One of the premier signal callers in the state,  Roberts has passed for 6,972 yards in his illustrious career.

The Vanguards won’t back down from the challenge as they chase after their third consecutive victory.

“They’ve got some size, they’re fast and they execute really well,” Kester said. “They do what they got to do to win. We have to try to do the same.”

And just stay positive.

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