UPPER MORELAND – For the first time in a long time, Marple Newtown had to play without Anthony Paoletti. And of all the unlikely times for Paoletti to incur an injury, this seemed like a precarious one.
In the fourth quarter.
On the road.
In a playoff game.
If you were to draw up a nightmare scenario, the kind that would stir Tigers coach Chris Gicking from a sound sleep, this situation would certainly qualify.
But hey, no big deal … right?
“I mean — it worked out, didn’t it?” Paoletti said, smiling.
Probably not according to plan, but the senior quarterback made a point. He and Marple Newtown stunned previously undefeated Upper Moreland, 24-18, to advance to the semifinal round of the District 1 Class 5A tournament next weekend, where the seventh-seeded Tigers will face No. 3 Unionville.
The win was not without its share of nail-biting moments for the Tigers (8-4). They clung to a two-score lead when Paoletti, Delaware County’s all-time leading passer, was forced to the sideline with a stinger in his throwing shoulder.
“Everyone was saying that they were scared. I wasn’t nervous,” said Paoletti, who went 7-for-17 for 94 yards and a touchdown to Alden Mathes. “This group of juniors and seniors, they’ve been around the playoffs. This is my seventh playoff start. I had no doubt we’d get the job done.”
That comfortable lead, however, dwindled to six points with 8:46 to play following an unlikely 75-yard screen pass touchdown from Sterlen Barr. All the while, Marple Newtown running back Marlon Weathers had to handle the Tigers’ play-calling duties.
Had Weathers ever done that before? Nope.
At some point in practice? Maybe on occasion, he said.
“It was pretty exciting,” Weathers said.
“We obviously practice a bunch of that stuff, just in case,” Gicking said. “When you have to throw it in all of a sudden, you hope the kids respond well, and they did.”
Though the Weathers-led offensive experiment went three-and-out on its final go-around, Marple Newtown’s defense came through when it mattered most. The Tigers, leading 24-18, stalled Upper Moreland’s drive into the red zone with a turnover. Outside linebacker Luke Cantwell stripped the ball from Barr’s hands at the 14-yard line, and lineman Mike Miller pounced on it.
“When Ant went down, we trusted all of each other that we’d get it done,” said Miller, who also had two tackles for loss. “We’ve become a family lately. When you don’t trust your family, you’re in trouble.”
With only 4:44 remaining on the clock, Marple Newtown returned Paoletti to the field needing only two first downs to exhaust Upper Moreland’s remaining timeouts and seal the victory.
“We asked them, ‘Hey, we need first downs down the stretch,’ and that’s what they got us,” Gicking said.
Weathers carried the load for Marple Newtown, in crunch time and otherwise. He rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. His eight-yard run in the third quarter extended the Tigers’ lead to 17-6. His 30-yard score, out of the Wildcat formation while Paoletti was on the sideline, made it a two-score game, at 24-12, with 10 minutes to go.
Routinely, Weathers carved up Upper Moreland’s stout defense. On the drive that led to his first touchdown, the junior shed two Golden Bears tacklers for a nine-yard gain and, three plays later, hit the hole on the left side before spinning past a row of Upper Moreland linebackers for an 18-yard pick-up.
“It’s the heart I have for the game,” Weathers said. “I love football, man. I’ve been playing running back for my whole life. I just keep moving my feet. I just know I’ll be able to make something happen.”
Second-seeded Upper Moreland (10-1) couldn’t capitalize with Paoletti out of the game. The Golden Bears, the Suburban One League’s American Conference champions, got 101 yards rushing and 75 yards receiving from Barr, to go with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Caleb Mead.
“They’re a good team,” Gicking said. “We did just enough to hold off those two guys (Barr and Mead) and walk out of here with a win.”
A year ago, Marple Newtown won a share of the Central League title and amassed its best season in more than four decades. This season, an unexpected 4-4 start prompted the Tigers’ turnaround.
“We’re becoming a team now. We have that feel,” Weathers said. “We weren’t on the same page and weren’t on the same mission. Now we are.”
Added Paoletti: “We liked the challenge of coming in here — a tough place to play, on a 20-degree night, and having to beat an undefeated team. We did it. We live another day. Now it’s onto the next one.”