Springfield’s defense puts stamp on district semifinal win

SPRINGFIELD >> Springfield lineman Derek Strain gave a succinct assessment when asked about his Cougars’ defense.

“I just think we’re really good,” Strain said. “We’re hard to play against.”

He’s certainly not wrong. The Springfield defense is really good. The rest of the team isn’t bad, either. On Friday night, the top-seeded Cougars defeated No. 5 Upper Dublin 17-6 in the District 1 Class 5A semifinals to secure their second consecutive berth in the district title game.

It was another standout performance in a season full of them for the defensive unit. The Cougars (13-0) have given up a paltry 8.8 points per game. Only twice — against high-powered offenses from Haverford and fellow district semifinalists Marple Newtown — have the Cougars surrendered more than 10 points.

Upper Dublin’s Malik Bootman again isn’t going anywhere, as Jeff Biancaniello (55), Phil Shovlin (7) and Patrick Clemens (32) commence to gang tackle. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

The Cardinals ran into that defensive buzzsaw on the road, or rather, they didn’t run much at all. Upper Dublin managed one first down the entire first half against Springfield and totaled only 26 yards of total offense in the opening 24 minutes. Dan Pennestri sacked the elusive Julian Gimbel on the visitors’ first drive of the game. Strain dropped running back Malik Bootman for a loss of three late in the first quarter, one of his eight tackles. Kevin Deal followed that play with a batted pass.

The Cougars’ defense played up to its reputation, and frankly, it needed to, because Springfield failed to get going on the other side of the ball.

After going three and out on the opening drive, the Cougars moved into Cardinals territory thanks to a roughing-the-passer call on a seven-yard connection between Jack Psenicska and Frank Durham, Jr. Ja’Den McKenzie followed with rushes of 15, two and six yards, only to see his progress partially offset by a holding infraction. That pushed Springfield back to the Upper Dublin 23, where it faced a long third down.

Psenicska dropped deep, evaded a rush and heaved an ill-advised desperation throw that fell incomplete. Luckily for him, the officials threw a flag for defensive holding. That gave the Cougars a first down and the ball at the 13. McKenzie bulled into the end zone from there. That came with 6:13 left in the first quarter. Springfield wouldn’t find the end zone again until the 3:33 mark of the fourth.

The in-between showed a sputtering offense that couldn’t quite find its footing against a game opponent. Durham caught five balls for 63 yards in the first half, but saw a 45-yard spin-and-dash touchdown wiped out by an ineligible man downfield penalty. Kyle Long also had a big play negated by a penalty, this one offensive pass interference.

Jack Coary nailed a 36-yard field goal in the second quarter but missed from 34 in the third. Psenicska marched his offense down to the two on the first drive of the second half but threw an interception on third-and-goal. So it went. The Cougars found themselves in their first struggle since the 14-7 win over Garnet Valley nearly a month ago.

“It’s a tough playoff game,” Springfield head coach Chris Britton said. “They’re a good team. Both teams are this far for a reason. Nothing is easy anymore. We have to get used to it. We have to play close without panicking.”

Upper Dublin’s Malik Bootman tries to escape the clutches of Springfield’s Derek Strain Friday night in the Cougars’ District 1 Class 5A semifinal victory. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

Having a strong defense helps in that regard. When Upper Dublin finally started moving the ball in the third quarter — a 23-yard completion from Gimbel to Lucas Roselli the Cardinals’ first gain of more than 10 yards — Springfield came up with a turnover. McKenzie tipped Gimbel’s pass and Liam DiFonzo picked it off.

Upper Dublin got to the Cougars’ four on its next drive but failed to score. Chris Barbera hooked his 33-yard field goal attempt left. Springfield punted on offense, then forced a turnover on downs at midfield.

That stand bought the offense enough time and Psenicska and Co. got to work. Jack Spence got open over the middle for 15 yards, while McKenzie added 10 on the ground on the next play. From the 17, the Cougars got the play they needed: Psenicska floated a fade to Long, who rose to snare the ball despite pass interference from the defender.

That made it 17-0 and Springfield could breathe easy.

“It was awesome,” Strain said of Long’s touchdown.

“He’s a playmaker, man,” added Justin Shields. “We need a play, we know he can make it. That was all his.”

Gimbel answered with a 12-yard touchdown to Jack Jamison to spoil the shutout, but that was all the Cardinals (8-4) could muster. The Cougars were too good even on a night when they weren’t. That’s the luxury of being a quality football team.

Now another shot at a district title comes next. No. 3 Unionville travels to Springfield after defeating Marple Newtown 36-21 in the other semifinal.

“It feels amazing,” said Strain. “I just want to get redemption.”

Strain, a senior, set the stage last winter along with his fellow upperclassmen.

“It’s a credit to them,” Britton said. “They knew what they wanted to do after the season ended. They were the kids in January when we said we’ll start the 15th, they were there the seventh.”

“We’ve been battling all year,” Shields said. “It feels great to be back. We’ve got to do what we couldn’t do last year.”

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