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Pioneer Athletic Conference 2019 Preview and Team-by-Team Breakdowns

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Pope John Paul II Golden Panthers

Kamal Gray and Pope John Paul II will look to get the season started right as they take on New Hope-Solebury in a rematch of the District 1/12 Class 3A semifinals. (File Photo)

Setbacks fuel to PJP’s mission to surpass the standard

Fast starts are nothing new at Pope John Paul II. 

Two years ago, the team ran out to a 7-0 start to their season. Last year, the Golden Panthers’ offense averaged 40 points per game in opening with a record of 5-0.

In 2019, a senior-laden offense and almost-equally experienced defense will try to finish as strong as they’ve started. While the past two years have ended in similar fashion—losses to crosstown rival Spring-Ford and a first-round exit in the district playoffs—the setbacks have provided fuel for a group looking to surpass the standard set by last year’s 8-3 finish.

“It was pretty upsetting, the way our season ended last year,” said senior quarterback Kamal Gray of a 42-34 loss to New Hope-Solebury in a Class 3A semifinal. The Golden Panthers saw a 21-0 halftime lead disappear in a flurry of five second-half turnovers.

“But it’s driven me to come out ready this season. I’ve been motivated all offseason, I’m ready for anything.”

Gray was certainly ready in his first season at PJP after transferring from Archbishop Carroll, throwing for 2,250 and leading the Frontier Division with 28 touchdown passes. He’ll have PAC-leading WR Steve Skarbek (47 catches, 838 yards, 9 TD), a fellow senior, back alongside him in 2019, while junior Justin Kormos (34 rec, 642 yards, 10 TD) and senior TE Justin Mitala round out an imposing passing game. 

“These guys have worked together for two years now,” said coach Rory Graver. “We plan to take another step forward this season—that playoff loss really hurt. It’s been a driving force ever since.

“But we can’t go back and avenge that loss right away. We need to focus on getting better each day in the meantime.”

Graver said the running back spot will be more of a rotation this year, as opposed to last season where AJ Natale served as a workhorse for the Golden Panthers’ offense. 

As many as five players are in the mix to see carries this season, including seniors Andrew McDonald and Daylin Gooden, and underclassmen Steele DePetrillo, Chris Bruder, and Josh Little. Graver was quick to point out that the lack of clarity on the depth chart wouldn’t correlate to a lessened emphasis on the run game. 

“I look back at that playoff game, and I look at myself and I might have gotten a little pass-happy,” admitted Graver. “If we’re going to compete in the PAC or beyond, you need to be balanced.”

That balance will include the defensive side of the ball, a solid unit last year that was sometimes overshadowed by the Golden Panthers’ offensive breakout, including two-way lineman Sean Anderson. One of the new starters will be senior defensive end Dylan Walker. 

“Really, everyone on our defensive line has put in a lot of work this offseason,” said Walker. “We want to be a strength of the team—getting after the ball, making life hard for the opposing offenses.”

PJP jumps right into the schedule this year, opening with what figures to be a much-improved Roman Catholic before welcoming New Hope-Solebury in a rematch of that fateful playoff game from November. 

“We want to raise the bar this year, which starts with our non-league schedule,” Graver said. “We know every game in the PAC will be a challenge, so this (non-league slate) is the best way to prepare.”

Offensive Player to Watch >> Gray and Skarbek established themselves as the Frontier Division’s most prolific tandem in 2018, but the late-season emergence of WR Justin Kormos made it impossible for defenses to focus on shutting down any particular player. A repeat performance from the junior Kormos will make the Golden Panthers’ offense a nightmare matchup for any secondary.

Defensive Player to Watch >>  TE/LB Justin Mitala serves as the lynchpin to a unit that allowed fewer than 20 points per game a season ago and returns eight starters in 2019. Mitala’s versatility and experience will serve PJP II well in divisional matchups with the likes of Pottsgrove, Upper Merion, and Pottstown—slugfests that don’t figure to get any easier this season. 

OUTLOOK >> With a year’s worth of continuity under their belts on offense and the experience of the returning defensive players, PJP II is well-suited to make Graver’s projected leap forward. The stinging memory of a couple close losses a season ago will provide season-long fuel for a Golden Panthers unit that figures to be the stiffest test to Pottsgrove’s Frontier Division dominance since the PAC went to two divisions in 2016.

By Rob Senior; For MediaNews Group

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Pope John Paul II Golden Panthers

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