Breaking down the 5A, 6A district finals

There are over 2,000 square miles in the four counties that make up District 1, but Friday night, everything happening in the Class 5 and 6A playoffs will take place barely 12 miles apart.

The road to the state semifinals does indeed go through Delco, as No. 3 Garnet Valley hosts No. 4 Coatesville in the District 1-6A final, while No. 1 Springfield (Delco) welcomes No. 3 Unionville in the 5A final.

This marks just the third time in the 2000s that the big school district final will not have a Suburban One League opponent, though three of the four contestants are no strangers to this stage.

Garnet Valley and Springfield finished runner-up a year ago, falling to North Penn and Academy Park, respectively, while Coatesville is making its third district final appearance since 2012.

Unionville played in and won its only district title game in 1994.

In 6A, expect fireworks. In 5A, think more of a slugfest in the corners.

Now for a closer look at what we might see in these two title games:

No. 2 Garnet Valley (12-1) vs. No. 4 Coatesville (12-1)

When Garnet Valley has the ball

Garnet Valley running back Matt Lassik takes the ball against Marple Newtown. (PETE BANNAN-DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA)

The Jaguars are on their third quarterback of the season, sophomore Ryan Gallagher, but that hardly derails what they do best. That’s run the football, and they have two battering rams that tote the ball 32-times a game between the two of them. Danny Guy (1279, yards, 16 touchdowns) is the lightning to Matt Lassik’s (1,268, 12) thunder and Garnet will split them in the backfield behind a six or seven man line and dare you to guess which way they’re going.

Garnet’s symmetrical formations and triple option scheme allows the Jags to play a tick faster than the defenses, who have to react more than anticipate the majority of the time.

Coatesville has given up its fair share of rush yards this postseason, conceding 268 to Harry S. Truman in round one and 235 to Downingtown East a week later. The Red Raiders haven’t faced a triple option team all year, which is an advantage for the Jaguars.

Coatesville benefits from having two Division 1 prospects at cornerback in Rutgers commit, Avery Young, and highly-touted junior, Aaron Young. This allows the Red Raiders to stick them in man coverage and keep nine in the box, like they did against East.

While Coatesville will have numbers at the point of attack, its defenders will have to stick to their keys and trust their eyes or Garnet will get in a flow that is hard to stop. As a result of stacking the box in week nine against the Cougars, Coatesville allowed a couple breakaway touchdown runs with the second and third levels so close to the line of scrimmage.

Gallagher hasn’t been asked to shoulder the burden as a young starter, and has only attempted 25 passes this season. But just when you’re not ready for it, West Chester East grad and Garnet offensive coordinator, Rich Boyd, will go to a Jag staple and hit a running back on a wheel or seam route, out of the backfield.

The Jags average 30.2 points and 304.7 rush yards per game, and their style, if they can execute it for 48 minutes, is the kind that can give Coatesville problems.

When Coatesville has the ball

Coatesville’s Ricky Ortega (Nate Heckenberger – For Digital First Media)

Coatesville will look to get out and running as fast as possible, as they have much of the year. The Red Raiders have scored exactly 213 points in both the first and second quarters this season and have rarely needed to keep their starters for much after halftime.

That might be different this week, as Garnet has outscored its last two playoff opponents 50-6 in the second half of two comeback wins against North Penn and Pennridge.

Scoring has not been an issue for the Red Raiders, as they’ve outscored their opponents 581-181 this season, with 145 coming in the first three rounds. Offensive coordinator Jim Cantafio has put the ball in sophomore quarterback Ricky Ortega’s hands and trusted him to win the games. And Ortega has flourished.

After averaging 8.9 carries per game in the regular season, Ortega has nearly doubled that load in the postseason. He has also not thrown an interception since week three, and with his ability to take off and run, defenses are continuously stressed.

Garnet’s strength is up front, as it played a lot of three-man front last week against Pennridge with Josh Ciarrocchi, Cade Brennan and Griffin Salus. Coatesville has the advantage athletically, outside, and will look to exploit one-on-ones wherever the Jags decide to employ them.

If Garnet’s option offense is mostly in a box, Coatesville is more spread out, letting Ortega decide where to attack. Of course, next to him is Aaron Young, who’s 135 rush yards away from 4,000 for his career, and hasn’t run the ball more than 17 times in a game this season.

Both teams are rhythm driven, but when the Red Raiders get going, defenses haven’t had answers. Penalties have plagued Coatesville at times, as well as its kick coverage. Garnet scored on a long punt return against North Penn two weeks ago, using a nice wall scheme, and that wasn’t the first time the Jags have gone to the house with that play this season.

Coatesville’s offense, alone, is averaging 40.8 points and 436.2 total yards per game, so keeping that unit off the field as much as possible is priority No. 1 for the Jaguars.

No. 1 Springfield (Delco) (13-0) vs. No. 3 Unionville (12-1)

When Springfield has the ball

Gene Walsh — Digital First Media
Springfield’s Ja’Den McKenzie runs into the end zone during game against Upper Dublin November 17, 2017.

The Cougars offensive stats won’t jump off the page at you, necessarily, but what you will see is a lot of good, solid results without any glaring weaknesses. Ja’Den McKenzie leads the team with 1,218 rush yards and 20 offensive TDs, and Phil Shovlin added 796 and seven scores on the ground. Quarterback Jack Psenicksa completed 66 percent of his passes and has tallied 1,866 yards and 21 TDs with only five interceptions.

The Cougars are happy to pile it on when given the chance, as they average 32.7 points per game, but they’re just as fine with grinding you down, not making mistakes, and winning 28-7 or 17-6, as they have the past two weeks.

With a defense like Springfield’s, getting two scores from the offense is pretty much all that’s needed. Where the Cougars get their satisfaction is trying to be as physical on offense as they are on defense. They will feed their big backs with traps and isos and try to break a team’s will, forcing defenders to tackle them play after play, as Springfield’s defense forces punt after punt.

And just when you’ve had enough of the pounding, Psenicksa will go up top on a play action and find Kyle Long, a University of Maryland lacrosse recruit, behind the secondary. Long has 813 yards and 10 TDs this fall is often the best athlete on the field.

Unionville is facing its fourth straight team from Delco and third from the Central League, and Springfield will be the most balanced offense its faced. The Indians shut down big running teams in Glen Mills and Strath Haven the first two weeks, and responded well to an early-striking Marple Newtown team in the semis, without star quarterback Anthony Paoletti.

The Indians are plus-five in the turnover ratio this postseason, but Springfield has been stingy with the ball. Much like when Great Valley defeated the Cougars in the 2014 district final, Unionville will need to find or create scoring opportunities through special teams or off turnovers.

When Unionville has the ball

Unionville’s Joe Zubillaga (Nate Heckenberger – For Digital First Media)

Speaking of turnovers, Springfield specializes in that category, taking it away an astounding 38 times this season. There are a lot of familiar names from last year’s runner-up team, and the Cougars play very well as a defensive unit.

Springfield has only allowed multiple touchdowns in three games this season and yielded just 8.7 points and 213.7 yards per game. Defensive lineman Justin Shields sets the tone up front, along with Kevin Deal and Derek Strain, and many of the skill players go both ways.

Unionville is built very similarly to the Cougars, with a lot of good athletes, without any eye-popping numbers. Senior Joe Zubillaga is the catalyst of the offense, and Unionville offensive coordinator Tim Murphy will find any and every way to get him involved.

Zubillaga’s carries have increased each week of the postseason, and he leads the team with 794 yards and 13 TDs on the ground, while adding 35 receptions for 650 yards and 10 TDs. He’s also 3-for-5 throwing the ball with all three completions going for touchdowns.

The Indians would prefer to run the ball as much as possible, which will likely be tough sledding against the Cougars. Unionville will benefit from having multiple options to go along with Zubillaga, using Dante Graham and Joe Fariello as ballcarriers and JT Hower (39 receptions, 764 yards, six TDs) as the play-action threat.

In consecutive weeks in the middle of October, Springfield romped Marple and shut down Garnet, displaying its diversity as a dominant defense.

Alex Gorgone has had a very similar year to Psenicksa, and like his counterpart, Gorgone is best off of play-action. For Unionville to have any shot of cracking the Cougars’ defense, it will need to be at least efficient running the ball to give Gorgone better opportunities to attack downfield and for Zubillaga or whomever to hit on a trick play.

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