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The Ruby Review: District Playoffs Review, PIAA Playoffs Preview

Hi everyone! Over the past fortnight, we’ve narrowed the herd down from 244 teams playing PIAA postseason football to 64 – 16 in each classification – still alive in the fight for a state championship. After briefly drawing attention to the fact that I went 34-2 in my D2/4/11 predictions over the last two weeks (so briefly, in fact, that I’ve already done it!), I’m going to fill you in on Week 11 and 12 playoff action and let you know what to expect in this week’s PIAA First Round matchups!

Spotlight on: Saucon Valley Panthers (12-0)

I could write about this team all day. Seriously, I could probably publish a novella about this squad, so I’ll try to keep this relatively short. On November 7, 2014 – that’s last year, y’all – I wrote of Saucon Valley: “The Panthers, amazingly, start almost entirely underclassmen… With so many underclassmen, Saucon Valley’s best chance to win the District will be next year.” Before this season, I made Saucon Valley my surprise pick to reach the PIAA AAA Semifinals. Of those two predictions: one down, one to go.

Saucon Valley is one of just two teams the Ruby Review’s caught three times this year. In Week 9, they were tested by Notre Dame Greenpond (a AA squad that’s 11-1 and still alive in that classification); proving a little better than the Crusaders for most of the evening, the Panthers built a 35-14 lead at home before Notre Dame’s Tre Jordan – easily one of the three best quarterbacks I’ve seen this year – led their high-powered offense down the field to tie things up with a minute left. Saucon Valley responded in a big way, though, connecting on a 54-yard pass with 38 seconds left to snag the gutsy home victory, 42-35. In Week 11, the Panthers – the district’s third seed, despite their undefeated record – went into Bethlehem and got revenge on the Golden Hawks of Bethlehem Catholic, who had knocked them out 49-7 the previous year. This time flexing their defensive muscles, Saucon Valley held Becahi – which had scored at least 28 in each of their games, surpassed 45 points six times, and averaged 43.9 per – to a paltry six points, coming out with a 14-6 victory that surprised many in attendance. And then, last week, once again on the road, the Panthers visited undefeated Lehighton – who were hosting their final game in the school’s 75-year-old stadium before switching over to new facilities next year – and roughed up the Indians, taking a 42-7 lead halfway into the third quarter and skating to a 56-20 victory.

Saucon Valley has a legitimate star at just about every position. Senior QB Zach Thatcher, who crouches lower than I’ve ever seen when taking a snap, could be the first-string running back on most teams. He makes very quick decisions on read-options, and uses his running ability to set up a very accurate arm. Senior RB Evan Culver, who could go over 4,500 rushing yards for his career in this next game, would be perfectly able to run the ball on every single snap of every game. I was about to write that he’d be perfectly content to do so, as well, but it’s apparent to anyone paying attention that he likes blocking too much. Speaking of blocking, no wideout I’ve seen this entire year – and maybe ever – has done so better than Senior Nate Harka. At 5’7”, his ability to absolutely seal the edge against linebackers half a foot taller to create running lanes for Culver and Thatcher is nearly beyond belief. His block on SV’s first score against Bethlehem Catholic absolutely made that play, and he’s shown time and time again that he will go up against anyone (and he usually wins).

As strong as SV’s offense is, their defense might be better. Big Junior DTs Trey Polak and Cody Zrinski – all 540 lbs of them – practically occupy the entire offensive line by themselves, leaving Senior DE Mike Kane one-on-one with the blocking back, who rarely has a chance. Senior Linebacker Mike Paolini is the heart and soul of this team, flying to the ball, exhibiting tremendous patience to let the play develop (patience is, in fact, perhaps the single most defining characteristic of this entire team) and very rarely being fooled. Culver and Harka anchor the defensive backfield, sticking tight to their men and ball-hawking when able.

Whew… now that my elegy’s over, it’s time to get back to the present. Saucon Valley takes on 11-1 Scranton Prep this week at John Henzes Memorial Stadium in Archbald. The Cavaliers, D2 champions for the very first time, are coming off a resounding 37-7 victory over the Berwick Bulldogs in what was the last game for legendary coach George Curry. Prep relies on a superbly balanced offense working behind a dominant offensive line to move the ball downfield and eat up big chunks of time, and on defense the plan is to get to the QB, force him to make mistakes, and snag multiple interceptions. This plan usually works.  Inasmuch as Prep’s line play is among the very best the Ruby Review has seen this year, especially on offense, they match up well against the Panthers, and they have a real chance to deal with Saucon Valley’s dominant front seven better than any team the Panthers have faced. But I’m just not sure they have the weapons to keep up with Saucon Valley on both sides of the ball.

Let’s face it: a lot of people think that whoever wins this week’s matchup between Archbishop Wood and Imhotep will waltz to an easy AAA Championship. And I’m not saying they won’t. But neither Scranton Prep nor Saucon Valley will go down easily, and, if the Panthers get past Prep and the winner of Selinsgrove-Greater Johnstown to reach the semifinals, the District 12 Champ may find themselves in a dogfight that they weren’t necessarily expecting. Here’s my prediction: Saucon Valley reaches the state semis and pushes Wood to the limit.

Other AAA Notes

Speaking of Selinsgrove-Greater Johnstown, that game takes place in Shamokin’s Kemp Memorial Stadium this weekend. My beloved Seals needed a last-minute score to seal (har, har) a 24-15 win over rival Jersey Shore, while Greater Johnstown beat 9-1 Clearfield and 2014 State Semifinalist Somerset (8-2) to emerge from the D5/6/8/9 region despite a .500 regular season record. The Trojans, led by Senior passer Jeremy Updyke and the two-headed rushing attack of Bryce Gibson and Terrell Jones, bring a balanced offense to the table. The Seals will rely heavily on star runner Juvon Batts to get them into the state quarterfinals. I don’t know much about Johnstown, but I’ll pick the Seals to sneak out of there with a close victory.

AAAA: Parkland @ Wyoming Valley West

This is a huge game. It’s huge, partly, because these schools are both Quad-A; Parkland is, in fact, one of the largest high schools in the entire state. Both will dress around 70 players. It’s huge because Parkland has won the last three district titles, while Valley West is undefeated and believes it might have its best team ever full stop. It’s huge because the Trojans and the Spartans will face off for the right to keep playing, and they’ll do so right in the Ruby Review’s own backyard.

The Spartans of Valley West came into the AAAA D2/4/11 Regional relatively untested – compared to the absolutely brutal schedules the D11 big schools play, that is – and it showed early, as 5-win Nazareth, the 8 seed, went into halftime with a 14-10 lead in Week 11. But over their next two halves of football – the second half of Week 11 and their first half of Week 12 against Bethlehem Liberty – the Spartans scored an astonishing 83 points, defeating Nazareth 51-34 and putting up 42 in the first half against Liberty en route to a 55-35 victory. The Spartans gave up almost as many points to those two opponents (69) as they did to their ten regular season opponents (78), but they showed what the Ruby Review’s been saying all along: they have more legitimate scoring threats than any high school team I’ve ever seen.

Parkland, one of the great programs in the eastern third of the state, also found themselves tested in their Week 11 game, as they took a 14-10 lead into halftime against feisty and finally-healthy Delaware Valley. They won that game 28-10, and in Week 12 they, oh, you know, ho hum, demolished perennial power Easton 37-0. Led by FBS recruits Devante Cross at QB and Kenny Yeboah at WR (and kickoff specialist – the 6’5” Yeboah often puts it 8 yards deep!) and founded on rock-solid line play, Parkland is as complete a team as you’ll see at the high school level.

This should be a fantastically interesting game, and both teams should be able to put up points. I predicted two weeks ago that Parkland would leave Kingston with a close victory, and I’m sticking with that prediction; I think their line play wears the Spartans down just a little too much, leaving them unable to stop the multi-talented Cross from breaking a long run or two late.

AA Games

At the AA level, I picked Lake-Lehman to snag the upset over Dunmore, but by the end of the championship game it was clear that the Bucks had… wait for it… done more (har, har) to move onto the next round. They’ll head down to Slatington and meet Notre Dame; in what should be an epic battle of opposite styles, the Bucks will try to run up the gut on the Crusaders, who will attempt to respond by passing over, under, and around the defense. I think Notre Dame just scores too many in this one.

The District 4 Championship is a rematch of that district’s biggest upset from last year, when a 7-4 Montoursville squad took out then-undefeated Southern Columbia in the District semis. A healthy Southern Columbia, fancying itself a legitimate title contender, will be out for revenge. Montoursville might be the second-most disciplined team the Ruby Review has seen this year, but the brilliant Jim Roth’s Southern squad is the most disciplined. The Tigers will just be a little faster, a little stronger, and a little better than the Warriors, and I think they’ll snag a relatively smooth victory with a battle royale looming against the winner of Wyomissing and Berks Catholic out of D3.

Single-A

In we-all-predicted-this-before-the-season-began-type news, Old Forge won the District 2 Championship (although hats off to Lackawanna Trail, who finished a surprising 6-6 with a very small, young team) and will face the Hornets of Wellsboro in the PIAA First Round. I like the Blue Devils to come out of this one, their defense proving a little too strong for Wellsboro’s balanced attack to break through. They’ll likely face District 11 winner Marian Catholic, who are playing their best football of the year and will take on 6-6 Bishop McDevitt (that’s Single-A, District 12 Bishop McDevitt, not AAA, District 3 Bishop McDevitt, who at 11-1 are looking to return to the PIAA semifinals and beyond).

Thanks for reading, everyone! This Week, I will be in Spartan Stadium in Kingston as Wyoming Valley West hosts Parkland! Check back next week as the Ruby Review looks at the final eight teams in each class!

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