CONCORD – Garnet Valley coach Mike Ricci has always heaped praise on his senior classes. Their exemplary leadership qualities are a big reason why the Jaguars are the gold standard of Delaware County football and a program many in the area try to emulate.
Ricci would never rank the senior classes, but he’s come to admire his seniors on the 2021 team.
Senior co-captains Nolan Breenan, Max Busenkell, Shane Reynolds and CJ Wood are some of the best players Ricci has coached and it’s no surprise they carry themselves like extra coaches. If push came to shove, Ricci said he could trust this senior group to run practice all by themselves, without coaches present.
What makes this group so special? Ricci can talk hours on the topic, but rest assured, it’s no surprise the Jaguars won the District 1 Class 6A championship last Friday and are two wins away from a state title. The Jags meet District 12 and Catholic League behemoth St. Joe’s Prep in the PIAA semifinals Saturday night at Ridley High School. Kickoff is at 7.
“My son Matt is in this class, so I’ve seen these kids be together since they were little boys,” said Ricci, who will retire this year after 35 seasons at Garnet Valley. “And since they’ve been little, this group has always had a special connection. There’s always been something special about them in the sense that they genuinely celebrate each other’s successes and they’ve been doing that since they were little guys. They’re just good, wholesome, compassionate, fine kids. But they (joke around) and they have fun when they’re together.”
After GV handled Lower Merion to close out the regular season Oct. 30, Ricci decided to give his team off the next day. It’s been a long season, he told the kids through a private communication over social media, and they had just played in atrocious weather conditions, so heal up and come back on Monday. Any high school football team would happily accept an off day, but the GV seniors had other ideas.
“So the captains sent back a message and said, ‘Coach, a bunch of us want to do a voluntary stretch. Can we come in?’ So I said, ‘OK, voluntary stretch tomorrow morning, I’ll be here at 10 o’clock’,” Ricci recalled. “I come in and they’re dressed in Halloween costumes, like spectacular, full-on Halloween costumes. (Nick) Mahoney was dressed as me and they just had so much fun with it. … I can say that we have not had a single bad practice all year. The energy, the focus, where does it come from? They’ve always had that.”
The levity was well-earned. After all, the Jags had just completed their second straight undefeated regular season, won their fourth consecutive Central League title and locked up the No. 1 seed in the district tournament.
“Coach Ricci said we were going to have off and we were all mad,” said Wood, an outstanding linebacker and three-year starter. “We just wanted to get better and have a nice yoga session, and we had some fun with it on Halloween.”
There are other characteristics that make this year’s senior class special, even by Garnet Valley standards. Ricci was surprised to learn that his seniors had established an active mentor-mentee relationship with the underclassmen. And it’s gone far beyond text messages to see how someone is doing. Ricci learned from a parent this year that one of his senior players had taken the parent’s son, a sophomore on the team, out to breakfast on multiple occasions.
“We have a mentoring program each year with however many seniors we have and I give each coach one or two seniors to ‘mentor,’ and their job is to establish a relationship with those seniors. … And they keep those relationships long past senior year,” Ricci said.
The seniors took it one step further and created their own mentoring program, a pleasant surprise to Ricci.
“They told me this year they wanted to be all-in and we talked about what that might look like. Well, completely unbeknownst to me … the parent of this sophomore thanked me for the mentoring program and I said, ‘What do you mean? That’s just something we do for the seniors.’ And the parent said to me, ‘I’m talking about the senior who is mentoring my son.’ The seniors, on their own, developed a mentoring program for the underclassmen. I had no idea until this person told me.”
Due in large part to the senior leaders, Garnet Valley (14-0) has no qualms about being the underdog Saturday night.
Everyone knows the reputation of Prep, which has won a ridiculous six PIAA championships since 2013, including three in a row in Class 6A. They are 20-1 all-time in state playoff games. But this is a younger and some believe a less-dominant-than-normal Prep team. Last week, the District 12 and Catholic League champions held on to defeat Freedom High, 24-21, in the quarterfinal round. In 12 games Prep is averaging 30 points per game, while Garnet Valley has outscored the Hawks by more than 300 points in two more games. The Jags are averaging 48.9 points per contest.
The Hawks feature a pair of athletic quarterbacks in sophomore Samaj Jones and senior Dane Picariello. Jones is the better of the two, throwing for nearly 1,000 yards. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 782 yards, but Kahseim Phillips and Blaine Bunch are big time threats out of the backfield. GV’s defense, led by Brennan, Wood and Joey Halloran, stymied Coatesville’s explosive offense last week and are poised to attack another great offensive team in Prep.
Busenkell is having a record-setting season at quarterback for the Jags. He’s thrown for 1,848 yards and 26 touchdowns and has provided excellent defense in the secondary. Unfortunately, GV will be missing Busenkell’s favorite receiving target in Sean Gallagher, who is out with an injury. Reynolds, though, has been unstoppable at running back. Despite missing six games due to injury, Reynolds has amassed 1,240 yards and 21 touchdowns.
There’s no doubt, Garnet Valley is ready to win this game. If they do, it’s off to Hershey next week to play for the state championship against either District 6’s State College or District 7’s Mt. Lebanon.
“Besides the fact it’s the state semifinals, it’s like any other game,” Busenkell said. “We’re a great team, too, and we deserve to be in the position that we are in. We’re going to go out and play our game. We won’t be intimidated by anything.”
Smith’s Prediction >> Garnet Valley 28, St. Joe’s Prep 27