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Great Valley’s Merriwether helps East blank West, 22-0, in Valor Bowl

WEST GOSHEN >> Dating back to the inaugural Valor Bowl in 1999, nearly 750 student-athletes have played in Chester County’s only all-star football game, which benefits Special Olympics.

And through the ensuing 21 outings, just two females have suited up for the game. It represents just .002 percent of the total participants.

East’s Alex Pelegrin (Unionville) tackles West’s Garvey Jonassaint (Downingtown East) for a loss. Pelegrin was the East’s Defensive Player of the Game, while Jonassaint was the West’s Offensive Player of the Game. (NATE HECKENBERGER)

The first was in 2008, when Unionville’s Kalyn McDonough booted an extra point. And Great Valley kicker Sarah Merriwether became the second, playing for the victorious East All-Stars on Thursday at West Chester’s Farrell Stadium.

“I didn’t know that until somebody told me the other day,” Merriwether said, when asked about her unique opportunity.

The East squad wound up blanking the West, 22-0. It was the second straight year as the East prevailed 3-0 a year ago.

A Malvern native, Merriwether was one of two kickers for the East squad and wound up converting two of three extra points, and also made a big play on a kickoff.

“This was a cool opportunity, but I’m here just like all of the other players,” Merriwether said.

If there was a theme for Merriwether on Thursday, it was that she wanted to be considered just another player. And according to the East head coach, Dave Gueriera, and some of her teammates, she was.

“All the guys accepted her. She fit in seamlessly,” said East and Great Valley quarterback Jake Prevost.

“Sarah has her own little changing area in the locker room, but other than that, she is just another member of our team,” said Gueriera, the head coach at Malvern Prep.

West’s Garvey Jonassaint (Downingtown East) loses his helmet while being gang tackled by a group of East defenders. (NATE HECKENBERGER)

A three-sport standout with the Patriots, Merriwether was a multi-year starting forward in soccer, a sprinter in track, and then gave football a try for her senior year last fall.  

“I played a little bit of football in seventh grade at Great Valley Middle School, but I wanted to be a wide receiver back then,” Merriwether explained.

“I can kick a soccer ball pretty far and I’ve always liked football. So for my senior year, I thought, ‘why not try it?’”

She attended a Great Valley minicamp last spring, talked to then head coach Dan Ellis, and got the OK.  

“Over the summer, I mostly trained with the soccer team, but football preseason starts a week earlier than everyone else so I kicked three times a week,” Merriwether explained.

“During the season, after soccer practices, I would go to football practices twice a week and then the games on Friday nights. There was two times I had to go right from a soccer game to a football game. Those were the hardest, but it wasn’t too bad because kicking isn’t the most draining thing.

“It was just a new challenge.”

Merriwether made an immediate impact, booting a career-long 43-yard field goal in an early scrimmage, and earning the starting kicking job with the Patriots. In the opener, she misfired on a 30-yard-plus field goal attempt, but had a lot of success throughout the season on point after attempts.

“PAT’s are fun because everybody is amped up after scoring,” she said. “My job is to go in and finish it off.”

Even though she did not attempt another field goal, Merriwether became a valuable weapon for Great Valley, especially on kickoffs.

“Sarah was our teammate,” said Great Valley’s Brendan O’Donnell. “She was never isolated from anyone. She was right there with us, and when she got out there, she did her job. It wasn’t like she was out there as a girl, she was a player trying to help us win.

“And she definitely helped us. We did a lot of placement kicks and she did a lot of that for us.”

Merriwether showed off her skills on Thursday by successfully executing a pooch kick at the end of the half that was recovered by teammate Colin Hurley (West Chester Rustin).

“I was pretty happy with the season at Great Valley,” Merriwether said. “I came in not expecting to do kickoffs, but once I got acclimated, my control was better. From soccer, one of my strong suits is placing the ball, so we did some pop-kicks, but I can also kick it further.

“It worked out really well. It was like having 60 brothers. They were all very supportive and respectful.”

Heading into preparations for the Valor Bowl, Merriwether twisted an ankle while playing club soccer, and was forced to miss the early practices. 

“She was rehabbing an ankle injury, so we didn’t know if she was going to be able to kick,” Gueriera said. “But she was cleared late last week.”

With the ankle taped, Merriwether suited up in football gear for the final time on Thursday like a lot of other participants. This fall she will attend Nazareth College and will play soccer and run track.

“She was great and everything she did on the field for us was awesome,” Prevost said of her time with Great Valley. “She handled herself with class and she fits right in.

“I was a little surprised, but she has a strong leg and can get it done. She was the best person for the job, so she started every game for us.”

About an hour before kickoff, Merriwether was approached by Great Valley Athletic Director, Russ Wren, and notified that she was going to be the recipient of the Al Como Award given on Thursday evening as the school’s top senior multi-sport student-Athlete.

“I wanted to let you know since you couldn’t be at the Senior Award’s Assembly tonight,” Wren said.

Wren also notified O’Donnell that he was picked in a vote by the coaches and athletic staff at Great Valley as the boys’ Al Como Award recipient.

“Wow,” Merriwether said, tugging at her chin strap.

NOTES: The East team scored three first half touchdowns, including a pair on passes from West Chester Rustin quarterback Will Pileggi to Great Valley’s Josh Burgess and Malvern Prep’s Tygee Leach. West Chester East’s Pierre Marchant notched the third with a 29-yard scoring run … The only points scored in the second half came when a bad snap led to a safety. In all, the West squad turned the ball over eight times, including seven on downs … Pileggi was named the East offensive MVP, and Unionville’s Alexc Pellegrin won it on defense. For the West, Downingtown East’s Garvey Jonassaint (offense) and Coatesville’s Frankie DeLosSantos (defense) were the MVPs.

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