Defensive plays spark La Salle to District 12 title

PHILADELPHIA >> La Salle knew if it came out lightly against Simon Gratz, all of last week’s work would have been for naught.
Spurred by a couple of early defensive stands, the Explorers made sure there was no letdown. The right approach led to a 42-15 win over Simon Gratz in the District 12 AAAA title game Saturday at Northeast High.
It was a complete victory for the Explorers, who were able to put a pretty talented Gratz team on its heels early.
“It means the world,” senior tailback/corner Nick Rinella said. “We’ve been busting our butts for the last four years and we’re just trying to accomplish our goal. That’s all.”
Rinella, the hero of last week’s PCL final against St. Joe’s Prep, saved a little bit of that heroism for Saturday. After Gratz’s defense bottled up the La Salle offense on the Explorers’ first possession, the Bulldogs ripped off a big play.
Quarterback Amir Gillis found a lane down the right side on a 3rd-and-8 from the Gratz 38. He looked like he was going to be gone for a sure touchdown when a blur of blue and gold came charging in and rocked Gillis. Somehow, Rinella was able to chase down the play and dislodged the ball out of the endzone for a La Salle touchback.
As he ran up the La Salle sideline, his right hand pointing toward the other endzone, Rinella had just struck a huge blow to Gratz.
“I saw him going for the endzone, I had to get on my horse and go get him,” Rinella said. “Thankfully, I was able to pop that out and turn it back over to the offense.”
La Salle capitalized on the momentum and struck for an 80-yard score when quarterback Chris Ferguson hit Winston Eubanks in stride and the wideout outran a trailing defender.
“That was a huge play, it really ignited us,” Rinella said of the touchback. “The next play after that, we scored a touchdown and within a couple plays, we had another fumble recovery for a touchdown.”
Indeed, just two snaps later, La Salle got another fumble in the endzone, this time on the Gratz side of the field. Sophomore defensive end Chris Maloney engulfed Gillis on a sack, forcing the fumble which Corbin Melle jumped on in the endzone for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead in just 20 seconds of game time.
The fumble was the early cap on a resounding show by the La Salle defensive line. Maloney had two-and-a-half sacks and was in on six total tackles while Anthony Piscopo (senior), Garrett Zobel (sophomore) and Jimmy Morrissey (senior) wrought plenty of havoc too.
“I was trying to keep contain but he kind of popped outside, so I wrapped him up and fell on him,” Maloney said. “The ball slipped out and Corbin Melle got the touchdown for us.
“I think it was on us to set the tone. We had a great week of practice. Our offense was clicking on all cylinders and our defense helped out, so it was a good team win.”
Junior tailback Syaire Madden had a little trouble finding running room early, but the powerful back kept pounding. He finished the day with 176 rushing yards and two scores on 19 carries to lead the offensive effort.
Until he got going, Maddens’ teammates picked it up for him. The Explorers pushed it to 21-0 with 14.4 seconds left in the first quarter when Rinella ran in from seven yards out. Madden had the key play on the drive, finding some room to break off a 60-yard run that showcased the full array of his running style.
When the Explorers next took over with 9:16 left in the second quarter, they put together a balanced drive that ended when Ferguson hit Rinella with a 17-yard dart to make it 28-0. If the first quarter start hadn’t made it clear, the team’s third and fourth scores showed there was to be no drop from a week ago.
“We just had to not overlook Simon Gratz,” Maloney said. “They’re a good football team, so we couldn’t overlook them. They’re athletic and they’re a big team. We had to play our hearts out today.”
Rinella echoed Maloney in saying the coaching staff did a good job of hammering home the Bulldogs were no pushover opponent. Maloney pointed out that Rinella’s forced fumble was a momentum changer and Gratz easily could have taken the first lead of the game.
Gratz scored late in the first half to make it 28-7. After Rinella recovered yet another fumble on Gratz’s first possession of the third quarter, Madden got on the board with a 24-yard touchdown run then the Explorers shut down Gratz again and turned it over on downs on a short field. Madden quickly pushed the lead up to 35 points when he ran for 23 yards and four more to reach paydirt.
The Bulldogs did get one more score in the fourth quarter but by then, the relentless effort of La Salle’s defense had already sealed up the win.
La Salle’s defensive front was a big reason for the effort and they’re plenty confident in their abilities even if they’re playing a bit under the radar.
“I think we’ve been playing the run very well, our rushes have been good and we’ve been staying in our gaps,” Maloney said. “I think we’re an underrated d-line.”
This group has earned another week of practice and one more game with each other. The reason behind it was simple.
“We were prepared,” Maloney said.

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