EAST MARLBOROUGH – One might wonder why more college football programs haven’t expressed interest in Unionville’s Joe Zubillaga.
The kid’s a human highlight reel.
Whether he’s lining up at wide receiver or behind center in the wildcat, Zubillaga is a playmaker. If his offensive game isn’t enough, he can cause havoc any number of different ways at linebacker and in the defensive secondary.
Unionville’s do-everything superstar left his mark on the Indians’ 36-21 victory over No. 7 Marple Newtown Friday in the District 1 Class 5A semifinal round. He notched four touchdowns (two catches, two runs) and amassed 153 yards of total offense.
Oh, and for good measure, he had an interception.
Asked during a post-game interview where he will attend college, the three-sport athlete gave a great answer.
“Haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I’m still waiting to hear back from those coaches who don’t think I’m good enough.”
That one line left Zubillaga with a wide smile. But he had plenty to feel good about Friday night.
No. 3 Unionville (12-1) will play top-seeded and undefeated Springfield (13-0) in the District 1 Class 5A championship game Friday. The Cougars, who will host the game Friday at 7 p.m., advanced to the district final with a 17-6 triumph over fifth-seeded Upper Dublin.
With the exception of perhaps Garnet Valley, the Indians will be Springfield’s toughest challenge of the season.
“We’ve got to have a great week of practice and have a blast next Friday,” Zubillaga said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you can’t miss it.”
Zubillaga and the Indians changed the complexion of the game in the waning seconds of the second quarter. The Tigers snapped a 14-all deadlock when Alden Mathes, starting in place of All-Delco quarterback Anthony Paoletti, found Luke Cantwell for a six-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds to go.
Unionville’s JT Hower, who had six catches for 90 yards, returned the ensuing kickoff inside the Marple Newtown 10-yard line. One play later, Alex Gorgone found Zubillaga in the corner of the end zone.
“On film, you see the kid is really, really good,” Marple Newtown coach Chris Gicking said of Zubillaga. “You see him in person and he does even more things. He’s really talented.”
Unionville dominated in the second half. Zubillaga leaped over defensive back Kevin Merrone for a 49-yard touchdown catch to give the Indians their first lead midway through the third quarter. Hower and Zubillaga intercepted Mathes on the Tigers’ next two possessions. Unionville put the game to bed with a 12-play drive in the fourth quarter, capped by Zubillaga’s four-yard scoring scamper.
“They came out and made some adjustments in the second half, did some things better than we did,” Cantwell said. “Some of the things offensively for us were breaking down and they were figuring us out. Obviously, Paoletti wasn’t in and Mathes was in. They were figuring out what routes we were running and such.
“I tip my cap to them because they’re a great football team.”
With Paoletti sidelined, running back Marlon Weathers and wide receiver Dash Dulgerian (six catches, 126 yards) took snaps sparingly out of the wildcat to relieve the pressure on Mathes. When Mathes was running the show, the Tigers jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Mathes and Dulgerian connected on both scores.
The Indians never believed they were out of the game.
“We’ve been down 14-0 maybe once or twice this year, so it wasn’t something we’re really used to,” said Zubillaga, who had three catches for 83 yards and ran for 70 yards on 17 carries. “As a team, we’re used to fighting adversity. It was great for the boys to kind of rally around each other and get back in it.”
Unionville prepared all week for the possibility that Paoletti would suit up for the Tigers. The Delaware-bound senior, who set the Delaware County record for most passing yards in a career, instead was in street clothes and was the Tigers’ biggest cheerleader on the sideline.
“Every game I think our skills match up with the opposition’s. We have a really special group of guys,” Zubillaga said. “Our game plan was, whether Paoletti played or not, we had to stop the passing game. We kind of got out of hand in the first half, but we really buckled down in the second half. We played the football that we know how to play.”
Mathes acquitted himself well in opening half, completing 5 of 7 attempts for 63 yards. But everything unraveled for the Tigers (8-5) after intermission. They were limited to two first downs until their final possession in the game’s dying seconds.
Despite three second-half picks, the Tigers were proud of the way Mathes handled a difficult situation. It’s not easy trying to fill the shoes of a quarterback as good as Paoletti.
“Alden’s a tough kid,” Cantwell said. “He’s going Division I for baseball and he can go Division I in any sport he wants. He’s a great kid who comes from a great family.”
Cantwell stopped and looked around on the field.
“As you can see, it’s really a family thing at Marple Newtown,” he said. “It’s a great community. Everyone is tight. That is what is so great about this team and school.”
Gicking fought back tears as he talked about saying goodbye to his first senior class.
“It’s a special group of kids,” said Gicking, who returned to his alma mater in 2014. “These guys came in with us as a staff. I’m so proud of them. Twenty-eight wins for this senior class. The senior class that graduated last year graduated with 25 wins and they said to this class, ‘We know you are beating our record next year.’ They did exactly that.
“I’m proud of the kids and I’m thankful to have a great staff and community support.”