Spring-Ford football pushes reigning District 1 champ Garnet Valley to the limit

In building their 31-game winning streak against District 1 opponents, the Garnet Valley Jaguars followed a formula that’s almost as easy to explain as it is difficult to overcome.

The Jaguars run the ball downhill – dives, sweeps, keepers, mixed in with just enough play-action passes to keep a defense honest … and confused.

Eventually, opponents go where Garnet Valley wants them to go. They get out of their lanes; they lose track of assignments. Physical exhaustion meets mental fatigue, and the Jaguars win by football’s version of a TKO.

It’s an effective approach. After all, Garnet’s District 1 winning streak now stands at 32 games after Friday night’s 30-27 overtime win over No. 8 seed Spring-Ford.

But the victory came with a question 12-0 Garnet Valley had to answer for the first time this year: what do you do when your opponent just won’t go away?

In an area more than familiar with heroic underdog performances in sports – both real and cinematic – Spring-Ford’s unwavering resolve against the class of District 1 nearly resulted in a seismic victory at Moe DeFrank Stadium, leaving fans of the hosts with an unfamiliar reaction – relief.

Garnet Valley’s (36) Jason Bernard carries the ball in the first half against Spring Ford in the quarter-finals of State 6A playoffs Friday night. The Jags went on to win by a score of 30-27. (Pete Bannan – MediaNews Group)

And while the ending was more Rocky or Friday Night Lights than it was Miracle, Spring-Ford provided a blueprint for underdogs everywhere by simply refusing to believe that they were, in fact, expected to lose this game.

The Rams trailed by double digits midway through the second quarter yet were undeterred and managed to battle back to a 10-all tie by the eight-minute mark of the third period. That was when the fun really began.

Garnet Valley would break their 20-minute scoreless streak – an eternity for their offense – with a short touchdown run in the first minute of the fourth period. The score came at the end of a 16-play, 84-yard drive, the type of possession that typically heralds Garnet Valley assuming permanent control over yet another conquered opponent.

But Gage Swanger wasn’t being toppled. The Spring-Ford senior kept hope alive with a thunderbolt of a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to re-establish the tie game.

That was when something changed for the hosts. A murmur through the crowd, an exchange of glances on the sideline. Spring-Ford wasn’t going away, Garnet Valley would have to put them away. The Rams had designs on more than just ‘hanging around.’

Surely, however, this marked the beginning of the end. The Rams’ defense had been on the field for almost an entire quarter, Swanger’s kick return their only brief respite. Fittingly, the Jaguars charged down the field on a 58-yard drive that took only two minutes to re-establish the lead.

Garnet Valley’s (20) Jack Westburg scores the winning touchdown in overtime to defeat Spring Ford in the quarter-finals of State 6A playoffs Friday night by a score of 30-27. (Pete Bannan – MediaNews Group)

The Rams’ response covered only 51 yards but was months in the making. Spring-Ford’s vastly improved running game was on display with the never-say-die running of Will Fish (12 rushes, 95 yards, 2 TDs) while sophomore quarterback Matt Zollers displayed his progression from first-year starter to seasoned veteran in just 10 plays, picking up first downs with his arm and his legs.

But when Fish powered into the end zone to tie the game at 24 with four minutes remaining, the writing was on the wall: Garnet Valley had plenty of time to charge down the field once more for a game-winning score.

Instead, Spring-Ford dug deep, stopping an offense that almost never takes losses for two negative plays in one set of downs and forcing the Jaguars into a potential game-winning 34-yard field goal attempt, one which drifted wide and sent the game into an extra period. Improbably, the Rams had done what no one in District 1 had in three years – stood toe-to-toe with the Jaguars and fought them to a standstill.

But playoff football doesn’t allow for standstills or ambivalent endings of any kind. There would have to be a victor, and the high school football overtime format – a start from the opponent’s 10-yard line for each team – played directly into the hands of Garnet Valley, an offense predicated on the notion of ‘keep it moving, 10 yards at a time.’

So perhaps Spring-Ford’s ultimate undoing was losing the coin flip and going on offense first. Or maybe it was the first two plays of that possession, consecutive close calls that went against the Rams.

A holding penalty negated Fish’s 5-yard run on first down, pushing the Rams back to the 23-yard line, where an apparent completion to the GV 2-yard line was ultimately overruled and called incomplete.

Ryan Fields stepped up under a world of pressure and drilled a 27-yard field goal to put Spring-Ford ahead, 27-24 – the first time Garnet Valley had trailed in a game since the season opener.

The Jags made it clear they didn’t enjoy the feeling, ending the game and surviving their sternest challenge on Jack Westburg’s 10-yard score on their first play. The play was vintage Jaguars football – a sweep to one of their seemingly endless stable of ball carriers with at least two lead blockers clearing a path.

Now 12-0, Garnet Valley remains on course for a second consecutive District 1 title when they face Downingtown East this Friday.

There are no moral victories for a program as accomplished as Spring-Ford’s – particularly when said loss ends their season and the high school careers of some two dozen senior players.

It’s the type of loss that stays with players and coaches. Over time, the disappointment turns into motivation – one more set in the weight room, one more rep on the practice field, one more kid who comes out for next year’s team, hoping he can make one more play that changes defeat to victory. It’s the game that allows underdogs to ultimately become favorites.

Around the Area

As strong a team as Spring-Ford faced, Pope John Paul II saw the same type of juggernaut contained within one athlete in a 38-14 loss to Interboro in the District 1 Class 4A title game.

Interboro senior Abu Kamara rushed for 257 yards and four TDs for the Buccaneers. Yet he made the biggest difference when PJP had the ball, pilfering a trio of passes and returning one for a fifth touchdown.

Kamara’s totals – 257 rush yards, four rushing scores, three interceptions, and a pick six – weren’t even the ‘real’ story. That would be the pair of Delaware County records he set on the evening, as he now has 2,649 yards rushing (surpassing the former record of 2,519 of Ridley’s Tahir Mills) and 39 rushing touchdowns (the previous record was 37, by Isaiah Bruce of Upper Darby in 2015.)

PJP’s Boyd Skarbek rushed for 99 yards of his own on the evening, going over 1,200 yards for his junior season.

The outcomes leave Perkiomen Valley as the area’s last team standing, as the No. 2 seeds in Class 6A moved to 11-1 with a 27-14 win over Souderton on Thursday night. The game was moved up 24 hours in anticipation of the rains that deluged the area on Friday.

The Vikings ran for 215 yards as a team, led by senior Ryan Klimek’s 109 and sophomore quarterback Patrick MacDonald’s two long scoring runs. Carson Pascoe’s late interception sealed the victory, the third turnover forced by PV on the evening.

Perkiomen Valley welcomes Central Bucks West, the No. 11 seed, to Thomas J. Keenan Stadium on Friday night as they play in the District 1 Class 6A semifinals for the first time since 2016.

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