By Bud Weaver, Delaware County Times
November 15, 2008
For Marple Newtown head coach Ray Gionta, that is exactly how he told his team to approach this game Friday against Academy Park.
“This was a big game for us, it being an opportunity to be 6-6,” Gionta said.
After the Tigers were bombarded with a tough early schedule of some of the strongest Central League teams, they completed an impressive turnaround with a 17-16 victory over Academy Park at Harry R. Harvey Field, wrapping up a .500 season.
With four minutes left to play and Marple clinging to the lead by a touchdown, 17-10, quarterback Kevin Johnson fumbled away the ball to the Academy Park defense, leading to a Knights touchdown on an Eric Gilbert sneak from a yard out with just 52 seconds left.
While it looked like the Knights would tie it up with an extra point, Tigers senior Phil Graziano was determined not to let his last game at Marple Newtown be a failure.
As Knights kicker Devin Hunter approached the hold, a high snap gave Graziano enough time to lay out a get a hand on the ball to send it high and off-target.
“I was looking back and saying to myself, ‘Don’t go over (the crossbar), don’t go over (the crossbar),’” Graziano said of his game-saving effort.
The closing win not only made the season for Marple Newtown (6-6), but it was just what Gionta wanted for his players — to finish strong.
“I think it says a lot about the kids and the program,” Gionta said. “Our coaching staff does a tremendous job … it speaks volumes for them and for their senior leadership. (Dan) Giordano has been playing hurt all season and you’ve seen what (Phil) Graziano has been able to do all year.
“I think the persistence we showed – we turned the ball over, but we hung in there and we hung tough. We gutted it out.”
For Giordano and Graziano, the win was just how they wanted to end their high school careers at Marple.
“We started off real slow (but) these guys played their hearts out,” Giordano said. “We played average, but (Graziano) blocked that kick and won us the game. We made a couple mistakes, but we fought back. It’s great to be back at .500. It’s a credit to the program and kids here.”
“It was one of our goals to get back to even strength,” Graziano said. “It was definitely something we wanted to do and we did it.”
After a tough first quarter, Tigers kicker Adam Fender hit a 33-yard field goal just one second into the next quarter to give the Tigers a 3-0 advantage.
When Marple returned to offense, it was not as pretty, as its next five plays from scrimmage resulted in two fumbled snaps that were lost – the second which led to Gilbert’s first touchdown, an 8-yard scramble.
In the closing seconds of the half, Hunter was able to nail a 34-yarder to put Academy Park up a touchdown, 10-3.
“They are extremely quick,” Gionta said of the Knights. “You are going to be tested on the perimeter by the backs. Gilbert and (Laquan) Frazier are good players.”
While the outcome is not what they wanted, it is safe to say that Academy Park (7-5) controlled the pace of the game and even overmatched the Tigers in first downs, 16-11, and total yardage, 242-186. Both Frazier and Gilbert combined for 206 rushing yards and two touchdowns as Gilbert eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season on the ground.
While it was a loss, Knights head coach Jason Vosheski felt good about the season as a whole, finishing with the first winning season at Academy Park in seven years.
“It feels great for the kids (to finish with a winning record),” Vosheski said. “It’s been a long time. Last time we had a winning record was 2001. We had a good group then and we have a good group now.”