Mercury Football Preview: Phoenixville hosts playoff game for first time since 2011

For the past two years, Phoenixville’s regular seasons have ended thusly: loss to Pope John Paul II in the Frontier Division title game, loss in the Week 10 crossover matchup.

So why is the vibe around the Phantoms so different this time?

As Phoenixville prepares to host West Chester East in a District 1-5A first-round matchup Friday, coach Anthony Ciarlello says it’s all about an attitude.

“The team has responded tremendously,” said Ciarlello. “The losses hurt, but these dudes are resilient. They know that any corrections or criticism is not personal, it’s business.”

This time, those corrections are more fine-tuning and improvement than overhaul. After losing the last two games by a combined 98-0 last season, this time Phoenixville (7-3, 4-2 PAC) played PAC champions Pope John Paul II even for three quarters, ultimately falling 38-21 after a big PJP fourth quarter.

Last week, they took last year’s champions, Perkiomen Valley, to the wire, succumbing 28-21 on a last-minute touchdown.

As the Phantoms prepare to host a playoff game for the first time in 12 years, Ciarlello says the hard work is paying dividends while continuing all the same.

“The players believe in each other and this team,” he said. “We show up, and our conditioning coach will run them to exhaustion as she has for 14 weeks. Then we will start practice, and work on our game plan and try and put it all together for an excellent WC East team.”

The matchup teases a bit of an “irresistible force meets immovable object” scenario as WC East (6-4) has allowed only two touchdowns over the four-game winning streak that propelled the Vikings into the 5A field. Among East’s losses are WC Rustin, Downingtown West, and Chester – a few of Division 1’s heaviest hitters.

In Phoenixville, the Ches-Mont representatives will confront an increasingly diverse offense still headlined by a power running game that put up 278 yards per contest this year, led by sophomore Deacon Williams (8.6 yards per carry, 1,106 yards, 12 TD) and senior Sam Moore (765 yards, 10 TD).

But what makes Phoenixville dangerous is a passing game showing measured improvement. QB Ty Romance’s (63 percent completions, 1,003 yards, 14 TD / 3 INT) numbers don’t jump off the screen, but the senior threw for 160 or more yards in three of the past four games, including a 300-yard outing at Perkiomen Valley last week. Coupled with the rushing attack, Phoenixville is showing the ability to hurt opponents in a variety of ways.

The measured improvement from last season means more on paper, but overall, without a win on Friday night Phoenixville’s season looks largely the same as 2022. Ciarlello’s focus is on earning the win that makes all the difference.

“We got right into the ‘this is what we need to fix if we want to earn another week’ talk,” he said. “They know what it feels like to not earn a second week.”

CLASS 4A: No. 4 Pottstown (5-5, 2-4 PAC) at No. 1 Pope John Paul II (10-0, 6-0 PAC), 1 p.m. Saturday

These teams met at Pottstown three weeks ago, a 38-6 Golden Panthers win. Avoiding a repeat of that result means the Trojans need to catch up quickly – but maybe not in the way you’d think.

“Given [PJP’s] playoff experience, we need to find the ability to adjust to certain situations,” said Pottstown coach Levert Hughes.

Indeed, the Trojans are entering Districts for the first time in their players’ careers, while PJP has played in three championship games in the past year (two PAC Championship games plus the District 1-4A title contest at Interboro in 2022.)

Nahzier Booker needs 13 yards for a 1,000-yard season for Pottstown. The senior running back/linebacker has impressed on both sides of the ball this season, embodying the improvement of the Trojans as a whole.

Quarterback Dillon Mayes and DiMark Lyons round out an explosive backfield, while a young offensive line faces the challenge of an experienced PJP front.

Ironically, the same PJP championship experience that concerns Hughes garners the same reaction from PJP boss Scott Reed.

“I would be lying to say I wasn’t concerned with coming back after an emotional win,” he said. PJP topped Spring-Ford 28-27 last week for the school’s first PAC championship.

“We have been able to accomplish a lot this season, but playoffs are a new season and everything we have done so far does not mean a thing. It has to be a 1-0 mentality.”

Quarterback Luke Terlesky (1.708 yards passing, 19 TD) and Braden Reed (PAC leader with 44 catches, second in receiving yards (901) and a dozen touchdowns) had quieter nights statistically at Spring-Ford, but Terlesky’s calls at the line and clutch throws were deciding factors while Reed’s handful of catches came on third-down conversions.

The PJP secondary of Reed, Brent Mitala, Jack Lockrey, and Dylan Skarbek come off an impressive performance of their own and prepare for a different challenge in the run-heavy Pottstown attack.

CLASS 4A: No. 3 Pottsgrove (5-5, 3-3 PAC) at No. 2 Bishop Shanahan (5-5), 7 p.m. Friday

It’s a familiar matchup in Class 4A, as these teams played for the District title in 2021 (a 40-6 Bishop Shanahan victory).

The rosters are very different two years later, but payback can be a motivating factor for the then-young Falcons who are now senior leaders.

“Bryce Caffrey, Gabe Rinda, Riley Delp, Joey Quinter, Christian Tibbs,” said Pottsgrove coach Bill Hawthorne, rattling off names of his senior leaders and captains. “All must have stand-out games for us to move on in the playoff bracket.”

Similar to WC East in the 5A game, Shanahan’s .500 record is the product of playing the two Downingtown schools and Coatesville – a lot to bite off for any 4A team. The two teams have a common opponent in Phoenixville, who topped Shanahan in week two and bested Pottsgrove in week 7.

Caffrey (553 rushing yards, 378 receiving) is the engine of the Pottsgrove attack while quarterback Rinda (855 yards passing, 10 TDs) has shown a greater willingness to take to the air and complement the power running game.

CLASS 5A: No. 10 Methacton (6-4, 3-3 PAC) at No. 7 Upper Dublin (6-4), 7 p.m. Friday

The Warriors are the first of two PAC teams who take on defending District champions in the first round.

Upper Dublin is a vastly different squad in 2023, but all four of their losses came against 6A playoff qualifiers.

Shyne Roberts paces the offense with 1,036 rushing yards on just over 100 carries, while Kevin Etkin succeeded under challenging circumstances (replacing Player of the Year Colin O’Sullivan, now at Rutgers, as Upper Dublin’s quarterback.

Etkin completes 60 percent of his passes, a large number of those to Chris Kohlbrenner (608 yards).

Methacton looks for its first playoff win in recent history behind an improving offensive cast featuring QB Kolby Howarth, and a multi-faceted running game including Ben Grove, who’s earned more carries as 2023 progressed. Shane Corne is contributing for the Warriors on both sides of the ball.

“We focus on what we do and who we are,” said coach Brian Kennedy. “We need to avoid making mistakes – we need to be fundamentally sound and play disciplined and cannot turn the ball over. Our special teams units need to be a factor.”

CLASS 6A: No. 9 Owen J. Roberts (8-2, 4-2 PAC) at No. 8 Garnet Valley (8-2), 7 p.m. Friday

The ‘Cats couldn’t have come any closer to their stated goal of hosting a first-round playoff game by finishing in the top eight.

Instead, their reward is a trip to two-time defending District 1 champions Garnet Valley of the Central League.

But the opportunity is immense – OJR plays a similar style to the power-based Jaguars, and being the first team to knock off Garnet Valley is a District 1 playoff game since 2019 is worth more than any home game.

To do this, a defense allowing only 11 points per contest will be tasked with stopping one of the deeper and more diverse running games in Pennsylvania high school football. No one player has more than 75 carries, and the team’s leading rusher has 470 yards – yet GV averages 235 yards per contest on the ground, while 10 of their 64 pass completions have gone for touchdowns.

Linebacker Lorenzo Satiro has emerged as a star at the linebacking level and may need to have his biggest game yet against the Jaguars. Offensively, OJR quarterback Derek Hinrichs (1,267 yards passing, 461 yards rushing) could swing what figures to be a defensive battle with a couple big connections to talented Mekhi Graham (41 catches, 675 yards, nine TDs), Justin Daubert, and Matt Gregory.

CLASS 6A: No. 10 Quakertown (6-4) at No. 7 Perkiomen Valley (8-2, 4-2 PAC)

The Vikings have opened the past several seasons with scrimmages against Quakertown, giving PV coach Rob Heist a window into the Panthers program.

“Quakertown is very well coached by George Banas and his staff,” said Heist. “Their kids play hard and with a gritty mentality. This should be a great game.”

Heist’s choice of ‘gritty’ could apply to his Perkiomen Valley squad as well, a team that’s overcome an unfortunate run of backfield injuries yet hasn’t missed a beat, hosting an opening-round District game for the third consecutive season.

Xavier Nunez has seen his role increase through the season and given the running game a spark, while Anthony Rodriguez’s play at safety provides stability on the back end of a top defense.

Quakertown is throwing the ball more this year behind quarterback Vince Micucci (1,443 yards, 13 TDs) but still averages 140 yards per game on the ground, meaning PV’s defense will need to be ready for anything on Friday night.

CLASS 6A: No. 13 North Penn (6-4) at No. 4 Spring-Ford (8-2, 5-1 PAC)

North Penn is no standard 13 seed, and Chad Brubaker knows it.

“They’re way better than a typical 6-4 team,” the Spring-Ford coach said. “They run downhill, so we need to work to get them into 2nd and long and 3rd and long situations.”

That job falls to a defensive line captained by senior Evan Strzeminski and the supporting linebacking level. At the same time, the secondary needs to be prepared to support in the running game while remaining aware of the lingering pass threat.

North Penn can be described as a running team, evidenced by Amir Major’s four scores in last week’s win over Abington, but quarterback Matt Bucksar won’t hesitate to take to the air with targets like Aidan Eves at his disposal.

For their part, Spring-Ford enjoys one of the area’s most explosive aerial attacks, led by junior quarterback Matt Zollers – now the owner of the school’s single-season passing yardage and passing touchdowns records – and WRs Mason Scott and Belal Abdelrahman, with over 80 catches and 1,500 yards receiving between the two of them. Scott is SF’s single season receiving yardage champion and could set a new standard for receiving touchdowns if he scores on Friday night.

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