For fourth-ranked Upper Darby, it doesn’t get any bigger than Friday night’s 7 o’clock clash with fifth-rated Garnet Valley at Memorial Field.
Forget the playoffs, this is the game of the season, Royals coach Rich Gentile said.
How big? Well, you have to go back to 1991 to find the last time Upper Darby was undefeated in the Central League this late in the season.
“As far as I know, we’ve never been undefeated in the league going into the last game before Haverford,” Gentile said.
The Royals (8-1 overall) are 6-0 in the league, as is third-ranked Haverford (8-1), which takes on Lower Merion Friday night. Garnet Valley (6-2, 6-1) is one game behind in the race for the Central League title.
Those two games are part of a huge weekend with both league title and playoff implications.
In the Del Val League, Interboro (7-1, 4-0), the No. 6 team in the Daily Times Super 7, visits No. 2 Academy Park (9-0, 4-0) for the league crown.
Meanwhile, Delco Christian (8-1, 6-0) entertains New Hope-Solebury (9-0, 6-0) Saturday night at Marple Newtown for the Bicentennial crown. The Knights have never won the Bicen title. Earlier in the day, top-ranked Haverford School (8-0, 3-0) hosts Germantown Academy (7-1, 2-1) to keep hold of first place in the Inter-Ac League.
Elsewhere, Ridley, Marple Newtown, Springfield and Radnor will try to keep their District One playoff hopes alive, Ridley in Class AAAA, and the others in Class AAA.
“It’ doesn’t get any better than this,” Academy Park coach Jason Vosheski said. “This is why you play. You want to be playing for a championship this late in the year.”
Vosheski and the Knights have been in that position a lot recently. Academy Park has won or shared the last three league titles. Garnet Valley is no stranger to big games at the end of the regular season. The Jaguars have won or shared four Central League crowns since it joined the league in 2008, and is vying for its ninth playoff appearance in the last 10 years.
Upper Darby, though, is in rare territory.
“I can only remember us being in two games like this, this late in the year,” Gentile said. “The year we lost to Strath
Haven, 7-0. Corey Cook caught a touchdown pass, but it was wiped out because of pass interference, and the year we lost to Ridley, 14-12, with Bobby McLaughlin.”
The Royals were 7-1 overall and 6-1 in the league when they lost to the Panthers in 2000. Upper Darby was 7-1 overall and 5-0 when it dropped that two-point decision to the Green Raiders.
“Next to Thanksgiving, this may be the biggest home game we’ve ever had during my time here,” said Gentile, who is in his 34th season at Upper Darby and 21st as the head coach.
The Upper Darby-Garnet Valley showdown also has major playoff implications for both teams. The Royals are 11th in the latest District One Class AAAA power rankings, while the Jaguars are tied for 14th with Plymouth Whitemarsh.
The Royals are likely in despite a loss, but there are no guarantees because 16 of the top 25 teams in the power rankings go head-to-head this weekend so there could be a lot of movement. Depending on what else happens, a win could vault the Royals to fifth and give Upper Darby a home game in the playoffs.
“We’ve never had a home playoff game,” Gentile said.
Gentile, though, is not looking ahead.
“Our No. 1 goal is to win the Central League,” Gentile said. “We’ve never won one since I’ve been here. The only one we won we shared with Haverford 47 years ago (in 1968). We’ve never won it outright so for me, it’s more important to play for the Central League title than it is to make the playoffs.”
Beating Garnet Valley won’t be easy. The Jaguars have won the last four meetings and is 5-1 against the Royals since joining the league. Upper Darby’s only victory was a 34-14 triumph in 2010.
“They scare the heck out of me,” Gentile said. “That offense is a good, old-fashioned Wing-T offense, which you don’t see anymore because everyone has gone to the spread. And that means you don’t practice against it. If we don’t play disciplined football, our defense could be on the field all night.”
Upper Darby has a pretty good weapon on offense, too. Senior Isaiah Bruce leads the county in rushing (1,690 yards) and scoring (22 touchdowns) and is coming off a school-record 322-yard effort in a 49-0 win over Lowe Merion.
Bruce is averaging 187 yards per game. If he keeps up that pace, he has a shot to break the school record of 2,136 yards set by Simoni Lawrence in 2005.
“If we can play well enough defensively to get them to punt a few times, we’ll be OK,” Gentile said. “But I think we’re going to have to score points to win.”
It makes for an exciting weekend.
“This is the best,” Gentile said. “As a player and as a coach, you want to be in this kind of game at the end of the season.”