The Pope John Paul II Golden Panthers have passed every test with flying colors in 2023, but last week’s Frontier Division showdown with Phoenixville saw PJP in a new position.
For the first time all year, the Golden Panthers trailed by multiple scores, falling behind Phoenixville 14-0 in the first quarter.
But PJP came back quickly and authoritatively, scoring the next 23 points and ultimately cruising to a 37-21 victory.
Now 9-0 PJP (5-0 PAC) heads across town to Coach McNelly Stadium for a PAC championship showdown with 8-1 Spring-Ford (5-0 PAC), a fitting title match between the two teams that rose above their competitors all season.
The profiles are similar – explosive offenses coupled with equally impressive defensive units.
“(PJP) is a confident, well-coached team,” said Spring-Ford coach Chad Brubaker. “In a championship game, the key is to play well in all phases.”
Last week’s comeback proved manageable for a PJP offense that has not stopped pushing the pace all season. Up, down, or even, the Golden Panthers’ diverse attack continues moving forward, paced by the consistency of the area’s leading rusher Boyd Skarbek (1,327 rushing yards, 21 total TDs).
“Everyone knows about his play at running back, but Boyd’s also making a major impact on our defense,” said coach Scott Reed.
But focus too hard on Skarbek, and the precision PJP passing game led by quarterback Luke Terlesky (71 percent completions, 1,610 yards, 19 TD/5 INT) will make you pay. Over half those yards and scores come via connections with junior Braden Reed (40 receptions, 839 yards, 12 TDs) while Brent Mitala averages more than 16 yards a catch over his 25 receptions.
“Brent’s been a rock on our team,” said Reed. “He plays just about all 48 minutes of the game. Over and over again he continues to make plays on offense, defense, and special teams. He is an unbelievable leader and a young man that improves the overall football program with his presence.”
Pope John Paul II seniors, from left, Boyd Skarbek, Brent Mitala and Kevin Heywood. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
Pope John Paul II’s Brent Mitala (5) runs into open field against Pottstown on Oct. 13. (Courtesy Rick Martin)
Everything runs behind the PJP offensive line, led by senior Kevin Heywood, a Wisconsin commit who figures to play his final high school game this weekend due to transfer rules regarding postseason eligibility. Reed lauded Heywood’s all-around improvement over the season.
“He’s a force on offense, but defense is where he has made his biggest strides,” the coach said. “He had to learn the noseguard position and every single week he has just gotten better and better.”
Heywood’s become part of a defense that’s allowing only nine points per game this season. TJ Boccella and Mike McNally are tied for the team lead in tackles, with Boccella atop the PAC in sacks (7.5). The Golden Panthers cause two turnovers per game on average, which is an area to watch against a Spring-Ford squad that’s been excellent for the balance of the season in avoiding giveaways.
Reed, Mitala, Skarbek, and Denny Owens are among the players who contribute on both sides of the ball for PJP.
The offenses are just about equal in points per game. PJP’s advantage in points allowed per game (9.0 to Spring-Ford’s 17.2) is mitigated by two key factors: the Rams allowed almost half those points in one outing against Manheim Township, one of the state’s best offenses, and more importantly, Spring-Ford’s been a brick wall since that Week 4 setback, their lone defeat of the season.
“That game exposed the things we needed to correct,” said Brubaker, “and the kids responded. We feel a lot better about it. Those players have nine games under their belts, and they’re no longer wet behind the ears.”
The Rams are allowing 5.8 points per contest in PAC play, and even that number is slightly misleading when considering the juncture of the game in which some of those points were scored. Bryce Roberts’ emergence (15 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, six QB sacks in the past three games) on the defensive line gives Spring-Ford another game-changing presence up front, joining seniors Owen Norman (six sacks) and team-leading tackler Evan Strzeminski (36 stops).
Spring-Ford running back Mike Bendowski celebrates after running in for a touchdown against Boyertown on Sept. 22. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
Senior Mike Bendowski leads the linebacker level with juniors Nick Garzarella and Brady Welsh, while juniors Shane Lewis and Anthony Earley will be tasked with limiting the PJP passing game.
When Spring-Ford has the ball, they’ll turn to the area’s leading passer in junior Matt Zollers, whose 2,309 yards and 29 passing touchdowns have him in range of single-season school records that could be established Friday night.
PJP coach Reed was equally wary of Zollers’ running ability, which has taken somewhat of a back seat in recent week but remains a threat to the tune of 324 yards on 41 carries and a half-dozen additional scores.
In the passing game, Zollers has a pair of prolific wideouts in seniors Mason Scott (38 catches, 867 yards, 11 TDs) and Belal Abdelrahman (40 catches, 624 yards, six TDs). Scott is set to become Spring-Ford’s leading single-season receiver in school history, while Abdelrahman needs 42 yards to reach 1,000 for his career.
If that’s not enough to worry about, junior Jordan Marsilio is a reliable chain-mover and big-play threat when needed (19 catches, 284 yards, two TDs), while tight end Ryan Kerchner emerged with a pair of TD catches last week, giving him six this year among his 18 grabs.
Balance is achieved through a running game where Jamal Lewis (93 carries, 557 yards, four TDs) seems to save his best for the biggest games, such as a 134-yard outing against Perkiomen Valley in Week 7. Bendowski (10 TDs on just 34 carries) and Zollers mix in as additional threats behind an offensive line led by seniors Norman and Luke Ellor.
Spring-Ford quarterback Matt Zollers rolls out of the pocket as Perkiomen Valley’s Sam Koehler can only get a grab of his towel during their game on Oct. 6, 2023 at Spring-Ford. (Austin Hertzog – MediaNews Group)
With offensive profiles like these, it’s tempting to overlook special teams, but the kicking units make that an impossibility. True, punting isn’t a frequent concern, but the jobs are ably manned by Zollers for Spring-Ford and PJP’s Ben Bosio, who’s received credit throughout the year from Reed for his booming kickoffs that force offenses to travel 80 yards for their rare scoring drives against the Golden Panthers.
Meanwhile, Spring-Ford splits kicking duties between Liam McGarvey and Ryan Fields. Brubaker has stressed the need for continued improvement within the special teams unit, with an eye towards big games like this one where PJP has a threat like Braden Reed, averaging over 20 yards per opportunity on just eight punt returns.
“Throughout the year, we try to give guys opportunities (on special teams),” said Brubaker. “Sometimes, they’re guys who aren’t seeing as much time on offense and defense.
“But we shored some things up on Friday night, so now some of those roles are being filled by starters.”
Regardless of Friday’s outcome, both teams figure to embark on potentially fruitful postseason runs, with PJP running away with the top spot in District 1-4A and Spring-Ford currently sitting in third place in District 1-6A.
So for both teams, Friday represents the first – but hardly the only — opportunity to bring home some hardware as validation of their dominant season-long journeys.
For the Rams, it’s an opportunity to claim their first PAC title since 2020 on their home field and kickstart a postseason run that’s been a year in the making. Spring-Ford was playing some of the best football in the District last year when their season ended in overtime at the hands of eventual District 1 champs Garnet Valley in the District 1-6A quarterfinals.
PJP experienced twice the championship heartbreak – a seven-point setback against Perkiomen Valley in this same game, and a deflating loss against Interboro in the District 1-4A title game. Since the preseason the Golden Panthers have echoed the sentiment that as great as last season could have been, in the end they had no titles to show.
A win on Friday would make school history with PJP’s first PAC football title.
(All games at 7 p.m. Friday)
Phoenixville (4-1 PAC Frontier, 7-2 overall) at Perkiomen Valley (4-1 PAC Liberty, 7-2 overall)
The winner here should cement a first-round home game in their respective playoff bracket (6A for PV, 5A for Phoenixville.)
Rushing for almost six yards per carry in last week’s loss to PJP, Phoenixville proved their brand of physicality translates against any level of opponent. Penalties, however, were costly and hurt the team throughout the contest, and coach Anthony Ciarlello knows it needs to change against Perk Valley.
“Rob (Heist) and his staff are excellent coaches,” said Ciarlello. “The team is big, fast, strong, and knows the game. This will be a challenging game from beginning to end for us.”
Perkiomen Valley finally has their starting offensive line back together, and the unit prepares to work in front of Juliun Corropolese, slated to make his third start in place of Patrick MacDonald. The inside linebacking unit of Carter Euker, Drew Kenworthy, and Sam Koehler continues to serve as the heart and soul of the PV defense.
Pottsgrove (3-2 PAC Frontier, 5-4 overall) at Owen J. Roberts (3-2 PAC Liberty, 7-2 overall)
OJR coach Rich Kolka paid Pottsgrove’s Bryce Caffrey quite a compliment when he named the Falcons’ standout as a key for his own team.
“We cannot kick the ball to Bryce Caffrey,” said Kolka. “He’s a huge threat – fast, and an all-around solid football player.”
Kicking to Caffrey was OJR’s lone mistake in a 14-7 win over Pottsgrove back in week two. A win would seal a spot in the 4A bracket for Pottsgrove, so coach Bill Hawthorne looks for Caffrey, Gabe Rinda, Riley Delp, Keith Dunston, and Joey Quinter to provide senior leadership to keep their final seasons as Falcons going.
For OJR, securing a home game in Districts has been a season-long quest. The Wildcats may need a team in front of them to lose, but a win is an absolute necessity to see that come to fruition. Mekhi Graham and Matt Gregory have added an element of explosiveness to the offense all season, with Lorenzo Satiro as the heart and soul of the defense.
Pottstown (2-3 PAC Frontier, 5-4 overall) at Methacton (2-3 PAC Liberty, 5-4 overall)
It’s Senior Night at Methacton, and the Warriors hope to honor their 14 outgoing players with a crossover victory to provide momentum going into the District 1-5A playoffs.
But Brian Kennedy’s team is looking to break a two-game losing streak. “We need to focus on the fundamentals – blocking and tackling,” he said. “We need to rally to the ball on defense and offensively we need to establish our running game.”
Pottstown’s surprising season reaches a critical juncture, as the Trojans can cement their return to the playoffs with a win. A loss doesn’t eliminate them, but they will have to hope for help elsewhere in the District (both Interboro and Bishop Shanahan are poised to move up in District 1-4A).
Nahzier Booker has been the workhorse at running back this season, with quarterback Dillon Mayes and senior DiMark Lyons also running behind a young, improving offensive line.
Upper Merion (1-4 PAC Frontier, 2-7 overall) at Boyertown (1-4 PAC Liberty, 2-7 overall)
The Vikings still have an outside chance at Districts with a victory, though they’ll need the right combination of other 5A results. What they can handle, says coach Davis Chubb, is the ability to match Boyertown’s toughness.
Chubb singled out Mike Scavello as a key to Friday night’s contest.
“Mike has played seven different positions this season for us out of necessity,” said Chubb. “He did a great job in his first game as starting running back, and we’re going to lean on him again.”
Boyertown looks to snap a three-game losing streak and take some momentum into the offseason.
Upper Perkiomen (0-5 PAC Frontier, 1-8 overall) at Norristown (0-5 PAC Liberty, 0-9 overall)
Both teams play their final games of 2023, and for Upper Perkiomen and coach Dan Heinrichs, the key is getting more game experience for the freshmen and sophomores while sending the seniors out on a high note.
“We need to finish this season like we started it with confidence and focus on winning Friday,” said Heinrichs. “The past and future do not matter, only us getting better as a team and program. We know Norristown has athletes and speed and at times do things very well. We need to be consistent on Friday in order to win this football game.”
Norristown is still in search of a victory this season and would love to send their seniors out on top in front of a home crowd on Friday.