Mercury Football Preview: Pope John Paul II goes for District 1 title; Spring-Ford hosts CB South

Pope John Paul II’s football program has qualified for three District 1 title games in the past five seasons.

This season, the Golden Panthers (11-0) finally get to host a championship contest when they welcome Bishop Shanahan (6-5) at noon Saturday.

The first two trips to a district final ran the gamut of emotions – PJP secured its first district title in a one-point victory over Neumann Goretti in 2019 for the District 1/12 Class 3A championship in South Philadelphia.

But it’s the game from last season that sticks out in the newly-crowned Pioneer Athletic Conference champions’ minds. A one-sided loss to Interboro last season ended a promising campaign and inspired the “unfinished business” mindset that’s defined the 2023 season.

Another distinguishing characteristic to this year’s title game is that for the first time, PJP enters as unquestioned favorites. That means very little to coach Scott Reed, however.

“Bishop Shanahan’s record is always deceiving because they play in the National Division of the Ches-Mont,” said Reed. “They are battle tested against some great football teams.”

Three of Shanahan’s five losses are against the two Downingtown schools and Coatesville – all 6A stalwarts – with a fourth coming against Phoenixville, still playing in the 5A bracket.

The Eagles will come at PJP with a diverse offense complete with two capable quarterbacks. Last week Landon Wright tweaked his ankle in the second half, so the late comeback was captained by reserve quarterback Zach Ferraro, whose decisive two-point conversion sent Shanahan past Pottsgrove, 29-28, to qualify for Saturday’s showdown with PJP.

In between, the two signal callers turned to Trevor Barbadora in the passing game while relying upon Pat Gallagher for the tough yards. Gallagher, however, showed his speed with a 63-yard scoring run.

“I’m tired of being called slow by my teammates,” said Gallagher after the Pottsgrove win. “I want to show that I’m fast.”

This week, he’ll get his chance against a PJP front seven highlighted by junior linebacker and top tackler Ryan Lamson, plus PAC sack leader TJ Boccella who now works as a two-way lineman. In the absence of Wisconsin commit Kevin Heywood during postseason play, Boccella is taking a handful of reps at guard.

“Our staff is very proud of his effort and willingness to help our team in any way that he can,” said Reed.

Pope John Paul II’s Boyd Skarbek takes a carry against Spring-Ford during the PAC championship game on Oct. 27 at Spring-Ford. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Reed added senior Mike McNally stepped in to take a majority of Heywood’s snaps on the offensive line and fared well in last week’s win against Pottstown. He also lauded Makel Parker, who’s played his best two games of the year in the PAC title tilt with Spring-Ford and last week against Pottstown.

“It was (McNally’s) first start at guard in a year,” said Reed.

The offensive line paves the way for PAC leading rusher Boyd Skarbek (1,581 yards, 27 rushing touchdowns) and provides time for the duo of quarterback Luke Terlesky and Braden Reed to operate through the air. Reed needs just 18 yards to join Spring-Ford’s Mason Scott as a 1,000-yard receiver among PAC pass catchers.

The winner and District 1 champion advances to play the District 12 (Philadelphia) champion next week – either Bonner-Prendergast or John Bartram High. For this week, of course, that’s not even a consideration.

“One of the biggest challenges in the postseason is the long weeks of practice,” said Reed. “It gets very repetitive. This will be game number 12, but we have been at this for 15 weeks if you include acclimatization.

“The biggest challenge is playing the best teams in District One 4A and trying to stay healthy.”

Class 6A: No. 5 Central Bucks South (10-1) at No. 4 Spring-Ford (9-2), 7 p.m. Friday

Both teams outlasted storied programs in their district playoff openers last week. The Rams outscored North Penn 42-35, while CB South successfully defended a two-point conversion in the final minute to eliminate Coatesville, 21-20.

It’s easy to bill this quarterfinal as the ground game of CB South – averaging 284 yards per game – versus the aerial attack of Spring-Ford and their 36 passing touchdowns. But Rams coach Chad Brubaker hopes the Rams can improve in terms of time of possession this week compared to last week.

“There was a stretch from mid-second quarter until through the third where we were only on offense for eight of the 56 actual game plays,” said Brubaker. “This wore down our own defense.”

The big-play ability of the Rams is a two-edged sword in that way, and PAC leading passer Matt Zollers and top receiver Mason Scott were on top of their games last week. Zollers captured a number of relevant single-season and career passing records for the Spring-Ford program, while reaching No. 3 in the PAC’s all-time single season leader list for touchdown passes (32).

Spring-Ford receiver Mason Scott breaks a tackle on a long reception against Perkiomen Valley on Oct. 6. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Scott continued re-writing the receiving record book with a seven-catch, 204-yard, three-touchdown night. With 13 receiving touchdowns, he’s tied to No. 2 in the PAC’s all-time single season list for receiving TDs (trailing only the 14 TDs of Perkiomen Valley great Justin Jaworski in 2016).

So why the concern about time of possession? One look at CB South’s statistical profile tells the story.

The Titans’ ground game is led by senior Anthony Leonardi (9.5 yards per carry, 1,256 yards, 10 TDs) but Leonardi is only one of three players with over 100 carries this year. The others are Corey Moore (674 yards, 14 TDs on 101 carries) and quarterback Owen Pinkerton (712 yards, 7 rush TDs).

Pinkerton has taken to the air only 54 times this season, yet he has 11 TD passes.

“They don’t throw often,” confirmed Brubaker. “But they are very effective in play-action.”

Bryce Roberts’ breakout season continues on the Spring-Ford defensive line, as he recorded a dozen solo tackles against North Penn including a sack, three tackles for loss and three additional QB hurries.

The winner will advance to play the winner of No. 1 CB West and No. 8 Garnet Valley.

Spring-Ford defensive lineman Bryce Roberts (99) tackles Perkiomen Valley ball carrier Nate Reedy (32) for a loss during their game on Oct. 6, 2023 at Spring-Ford. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Class 6A: No. 7 Perkiomen Valley (9-2) at No. 2 Downingtown East (10-0), 7 p.m. Friday

The hosts from Downingtown East possess the most uniquely impressive statistical profile in the field.

Since a week two win against State College, 28-26, the Cougars have allowed 13 points in total, featuring just one offensive touchdown. Seven of their 10 victories have come via shutout, including last week’s playoff opening win over Wissahickon.

Last Week, Rob Heist’s Vikings put up 36 points in rallying from a first-half deficit to topple Quakertown. A repeat performance would be the story of the season, but attempting to outscore Downingtown East isn’t the goal.

“Solid, complementary football,” said Heist. “We will need to get first downs and finish drives with points. We must execute on offense to help keep our defense fresh.”

The Downingtown East defense represents a step up in competition for just about any team, but thus far sophomore quarterback Juliun Corropolese has passed each test since taking over for injured Patrick MacDonald in week eight. Last week, Corropolese threw for 164 yards and two touchdowns – each to Robbie Sturges, whose two-way play continues to fortify Perkiomen Valley – while leading a three-headed running attack with Xavier Nunez and Nate Reedy.

In all, the Vikings’ trio carried 49 times for 215 yards and two scores.

Downingtown East’s defense deserves a ton of attention, but the offense is no slouches either led by Ayden Harris, the Kent State commit whose 1,564 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns are actually modest figures compared to where his numbers would be if there was any need for Harris to routinely play after halftime or into the fourth quarter.

The Cougars’ offense averages 39 points per contest, a luxury for a team that’s allowed that same number of points over the full 10-game slate.

The winner will take on the winner of No. 3 Souderton and No. 6 Downingtown West.

Phoenixville quarterback Ty Romance drops back to pass against West Chester East during a District 1-5A playoff game on Nov. 3 at Phoenixville. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)

Class 5A: No. 8 Phoenixville (8-3) at No. 1 Chester (10-1), 1 p.m. Saturday

These two teams met back in Week 3, a 34-23 Chester victory that seemed to awaken a Clippers team riding a 10-game winning streak that features five shutouts and a signature win over Downingtown West.

Offensively, the Clippers do it with a big-play passing game where sophomore Jalen Harris averages about 20 yards per completion and has 18 touchdown passes to his credit. More often than not, twin brother Daron Harris or 6-5, 225-pound matchup nightmare Dominic Toy is on the receiving end. Daron Harris and Toy have 11 combined TD catches on 36 receptions.

Dayshon Jackson carries the mail to the tune of 9.4 yards per carry over 140 attempts with 10 rushing touchdowns.

You’ll see the same cast of characters on the defensive side of the ball, with the notable addition of breakout sophomore linebacker Jerrell Parker, with 16 tackles for loss to his credit this season.

Phoenixville will counter with a diverse and prolific rushing games that’s led in volume by Deacon Williams (1,097 yards, 13 TDs) but also feature senior Sam Moore (792 yards, nine TDs) and quarterback Ty Romance, who eclipsed the 100-yard mark in last week’s win over West Chester East.

But Phoenixville needs to avoid the turnovers and penalties that plagued the team last week if they have any hope of evening the score with Chester.

“Last week was rough,” confirmed Phoenixville coach Anthony Ciarlello. “We need to hold onto the ball and play a clean game.”

The Phantoms are flashing more passing ability of late with the emergences of Kevin Kingsbury and Christian Moll as receivers.

“Knowing our opponent is helpful,” said Ciarlello. “I think we are in a position where our players know what they did the first time, and what they need to do better this time.”

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