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by Matt DeGeorge, Delaware County Daily Times

EAST MARLBOROUGH – As he waited for the receiving line around Anthony Paoletti, shedding the sling on his right arm for the first time all night, to dissipate Friday, Alden Mathes used the word “irreplaceable” three times.

Time and again, the junior wide receiver, thrust into the quarterback’s role for Marple Newtown’s District 1 Class 5A semifinal, asserted that there was no direct way to compensate for the absence of Delaware County’s all-time passing yards leader. Instead, Mathes hoped he could provide something different. So all week in preparation for third-seeded Unionville, the seventh-seeded Tigers hedged and hoped, tinkered and tweaked. And for a while, it worked for them.

But Mathes’ assessment proved irrefutable: Try as he might, there was no replacing Paoletti, as a 36-21 setback attests.

“It’s designing whole new stuff,” Mathes said of the week’s preparation. “He’s irreplaceable. I’m not even close to as talented as he is in the sport, and we missed him, as you can tell.”

The process, coach Chris Gicking said, began with acceptance last Saturday, mere hours after an upset of No. 2 Upper Moreland landed the Tigers (8-5) in the semis. He laid it out to his team: Paoletti could be there Friday, or he could not. Now let’s embrace the uncertainty, put aside the emotion and get ready.

So they did. The Tigers cycled five quarterbacks, none of them Paoletti, into practice reps. They went heavy on their Wildcat package with Marlon Weathers. They relied on the school’s baseball prowess — Mathes is a Richmond commit, while tight end Luke Cantwell recently signed his letter of intent to play for West Chester — to brandish multiple arms. They prepared parallel game plans: One if Paoletti’s balky shoulder held out, one if it didn’t.

No matter which plan was enacted, Paoletti would be involved. He prowled the sidelines offering constant feedback to Mathes and his line, exhorting cheers from the bench and eavesdropped on nearly every play as it was called in.

“He’s a great leader,” Mathes said. “He was there every day at practice, in the game on the sidelines. He’s honestly the best leader, the best player this program has ever seen, probably in its entirety. He’s irreplaceable and a great leader.”

For his part, Mathes wasn’t cowed early, a testament to his exemplary mindset and athleticism. He completed his first three passes, two to Dash Dulgerian for touchdowns to give Marple a 14-0 first-quarter lead. Mathes also found Cantwell for a nine-yard score in the final minute of the first half for what proved to be Marple’s last points at 21-14, and Cantwell hooked up with Dulgerian for a 33-yard completion in a reverse halfback pass, one of those instances of chicanery.

“We didn’t win, but I couldn’t be any more proud of Alden,” said Dulgerian, who finished a stellar season with six catches for 126 yards. “He gave everything he’s got.”

“Alden is a gamer,” Gicking said. “Really he hasn’t practiced at quarterback all year, but he’s just such a great athlete and such a great kid, and it was easy. …

“We didn’t ask him to be Anthony, and we didn’t expect him to be. But he did a great job.”

Eventually, though, there were too many holes to plug. In a four-game winning streak, the Tigers had attained their ideal run-pass balance, with three 200-yard games from Weathers taking the load off Paoletti. But the Wildcat package became the predicted norm instead of the change of pace, and the Indians bottled Weathers up for 56 yards on 16 carries. That left Mathes, who went 5-for-7 for 70 yards in the first half to be forced into a larger playmaking role.

He wasn’t helped by a half-dozen low snaps from his center, or from seven pre-snap infractions. And the jump balls that found Marple hands in the first half were hauled in by Unionville players in the second to the tune of three interceptions, including two by JT Hower.

“We didn’t really focus on whether or not (Paoletti) would play,” said Hower, who also had a key 91-yard kick return to set up a score with six seconds left in the first and a 21-all tie. “We still ran our game plan as if he would play. He’s a great player, so we prepared for him accordingly, and as you can see, we also prepared for him not playing.”

The disjointedness showed. When Mathes (who finished an eventful night 10-for-19 for 173 yards, three picks and three TDs) had the offense firing in the first half, the defense couldn’t stop Unionville. When the defense rose to force a pair of stops in the third quarter, Mathes couldn’t budge the offense, which had just two second-half first downs entering the final minute of the game. Trick plays were sniffed out, running lanes were clogged, telegraphed passes were picked off.

Where Unionville’s stars showed up in full splendor — four touchdowns and an interception for Joe Zubillaga, 173 passing yards for Alex Gorgone, 97 yards for Hower plus his defensive and special teams contributions — the brightest facet of Marple Newtown’s constellation was dimmed by a sling.

But even after an emotional and final post-game break-down of the huddle, Paoletti waded through the sea of mourning teammates to find Mathes, reserving the longest of his teary-eyed embraces. The unavoidable challenge of the moment hung tight on both as they shared their mutual praise, for the first time as this season as quarterback-to-quarterback.

“We had to change a lot of stuff, practice a lot of trick plays and new formations,” Mathes said. “… We just practiced hard and worked hard and we ended up putting up a good fight.”

To contact Matthew DeGeorge, email Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.