LOWER MERION — Through a lengthy offseason and a trying first three games, Ryan Smith maintained at least one certainty.
Jimmy Cage and Nick Chelo would work well together in a passing game, the Penncrest High football coach believed. The only trick would be to choose the proper alignment.
So after an 0-3 start that did have its bright moments, Smith made a change Friday. Instead of using Cage at quarterback, he would send him into the passing lanes. And instead of having him catch passes, Smith would assign Chelo to throw some.
The result: A 42-8 victory at Harriton that was strongly boosted by Chelo hitting his former quarterback with 114 yards’ worth of passes, including one for a 52-yard touchdown.
“We decided to make a change, and both guys are so selfless, and they are so team-driven,” Smith said. “So it was an easy transition.”
Chelo’s father, Chris Chelo, was a successful college quarterback at Williamson, and his older brother, Chris Chelo, played quarterback at Penncrest. So Nick Chelo, who did have a few earlier backup shifts, always had an idea that he someday would play the position.
“It’s just in the genes,” he said.
In his first start of a challenging season, Chelo threw for 132 yards, including the touchdown pass to Cage. He also rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
The new alignment worked.
“At first, I didn’t like the switch, but I love it right now,” Cage said. “I mean, Chelo didn’t miss really any throws at all tonight, He was a beast out there. Our offensive line played great, and he was hitting all the throws.”
Chelo’s 52-yard scoring pass to Cage with 3:01 left in the first set the mood, with Penncrest relying on a season’s worth of highlights plays in one moist night.
Deveyon Fitzgerald scored two touchdowns, one on a 47-yard second-quarter run, another on a 59-yard punt return in the fourth quarter after a quick pitch from Kam Vaughn.
Vaughn mixed a 31-yard, end-around touchdown run into his nine-carry, 81-yard rushing night. And Chelo scored on a pair of third-quarter keepers, including a 15-yard burst on fourth-and-two.
Eamon Scanlon was 6-for-6 on point-after kicks.
“In terms of who we want to be as an identity, we were able to establish a running game,” Smith said. “That was important. Defensively, we were able to be where we needed to be. And the special teams were very effective, too. So just from a fundamentals approach, we were in the right spots.”
Chelo and Cage were instantly comfortable in their new spots.
“I like it because we are both athletes and we can play either position,” Chelo said. “I like running the football, and I knew my line would block for me. They did, and we executed.”
The Cage-to-Chelo quarterback switch, and the Chelo-to-Cage passing combination worked, in part, because of their relationship.
“We are really good friends,” Chelo said. “He’s a great athlete. There’s not much more to say than that. He is hard-working and a tough kid.”
Before dipping to 0-4, Harriton would dabble in the trick-play sprit of the event. With 17.8 seconds left, Logan Rothberg flipped a short pass to Matt Krebbs, who quickly hit Ben Fisher with a lateral. After Fisher completed the final three yards of the eight-yard scoring play, he followed with a mini-Philly Special, taking a handoff from Rothberg, then hitting his quarterback with a two-point conversion pass.
“All we ever talk about is having a great attitude and playing hard from gun to gun,” Rams coach Justin Mellor said. “The kids are so resilient. We’re not really a football power. It’s a hard school to play football at, but they never, ever quit, which is just amazing.”
The Rams had a few early threats, in large part because Teddy Molineaux rushed for 103 first-half yards, including a 64-yard burst. But the do-everything senior did not play in the second half due to, Mellor said, a recurring shoulder problem.
“We were grinding it pretty good and we had a pretty good plan,” Mellor said. “But Teddy is the best player on our team. And once he gets hurt, we lose him on offense, defense and special teams. And it’s hard for us to recover.”
The Lions are hoping they have recovered from their rough start.
“We’ve been working since May,” Cage said. “And everything is finally coming together. It’s what we have worked for.”