Unionville knocks off Spring Ford in season opener, 26-17

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Unionville’s JT Hower goes up and grabs a key first quarter interception.

By Al Tustin, Staff Writer, The TImes

ROYERSFORD – What a difference a year makes. A year ago, a powerful Spring Ford team came in and dismantled Unionville to open the 2016 season. Friday night, the Indians got a bit of pay back, battling to a hard-fought 26-17 win over the Rams in a non-league, season opener for both teams.

Unionville (1-0) showed off a powerful, yet balanced running game — and was able to seamlessly swap between senior quarterbacks Alex Gargone and Joe Zubillaga, often keeping both in the game at the same time, keeping the Spring Ford defense guessing. And both played well — Gargone completing 6 of 15 for 84 yards and a TD pass, while Zubillaga was devastating on the ground, rushing for a 155 yards on 15 carries — including a late 74-yard ramble down the right sideline that clinched the game for the Indians. And the kicker — literally — junior kicker Dominic Braithwaite connected on a pair of clutch field goals when drives stalled out.

“It’s a big win for us,” said Unionville head coach Pat Clark. “To play a team with their reputation and t bounce back from the way we lost last year  — I’m very proud of our kids.”

Unionville’s Alex Gorgone connects with Joe Zubillaga — the duo shared QB duties and worked seamlessly in the Indians’ 26-17 win.

Other than during a bit of a lull in the third quarter, Unionville managed to come in and dominate play against its larger (the Indians are Class 5A, while the Rams are 6A) rival and dictate play. Two issues were key: a defense that showed it bends, but doesn’t break — especially against a team that likes to pass; and second: a a strong ground game that kept the ball away from Spring Ford and wore down the clock. In addition to Zubillaga’s running, senior Dante Graham pounded out 86 yards on 12 carries — as the Indians racked up 293 yards on the ground behind a new look offensive line that showed real promise in the season opener.

“We were able to move the ball early, which was a bonus,” Clark said. “We were pretty efficient in special teams, the field goals were big — with Dominic being a first-year kicker…and the thing we were able to do at the end was run the ball and eat some clock.”

Pretty much from the opening whistle, Unionville served notice that Spring Ford has a fight on its hands. JT Hower picked off a pass from TJ Pergine at the Unionville 39 three plays into the game, and the Indian ground pounders were in business. Unionville drove the ball down the field methodically behind the running of Zubillaga, Graham and Jack Adams and Gorgone’s timely throws, scoring on a tow-yard run by Zubillaga, to make it 7-0.

The Indians mounted another drive in the second quarter — and saw an apparent TD pass called back because of a penalty. Braithwaite nailed a 34-yard field goal to give Unionville a 10-0 lead.

Unionville’s Dante Graham looks for running room.

Later in the quarter, after the Indians’ defense trapped the Rams deep in their own end, forcing a punt — Unionville mounted a quick 24-yard scoring drive. After a couple of plays where it looked the drive would stall, Gorgone threw a gorgeous pass down the right sideline to Aidan Boyle for a 27-yard TD score, giving Unionville a 17-0 halftime lead.

But the Rams — one of the region’s strong programs — would not be held down for long and took advantage of a blocked punt early in the second half to get on the scoreboard. Declan Boyle’s punt — after the first Indians’ drive of the half stalled — was blocked and Spring Ford took over the ball at the Unionville 35. For once, choosing run over pass and taking advantage of senior Justin DeFrancesco, the Rams quickly pounded the ball in for a score, with DeFrancesco diving in from four yards out to make it 17-7.

After Unionville stalled again after a brief drive to near midfield, Spring Ford went on the march again, this time behind the arm — and legs — of Pergine, who threw and ran his team into scoring position, only to see the drive stall on the Unionville 23. Taylor Smith managed a 40-yard field goal to tighten the score at 17-10.

At the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, Unionville found it’s offensive rhythm again, with Gorgone throwing and Zubillaga running — but this drive, too, stalled at the Rams’ 12. Braithwaite cooly kicked another field goal, this time from 28 yards out, to give the Indians a bit more breathing room at 20-10 with 8:40 left in the game.

The Indians dodged a bullet after the ensuring kickoff was run back to the Unionville 22 — the but the defense held firm, forcing a Smith field goal attempt, which failed. Unionville mounted a bit of a drive — and while it didn’t amount to points, it took four minutes off the clock and put the pressure on Spring Ford.

But Pergine didn’t seem to feel it, quickly connecting for 21 with Mitchell Vagnozzi and then hitting a 45-yard scoring pass to Tyler Edwards, making the score 20-17 with 2:42 remaining in the game.

At the point, the game would come down to which team wanted it more.

Graham sent a strong message on the first play from scrimmage — getting six yards when it looked like there was no running room, but the senior back would not be denied. Then Zubillaga raced 74 yards down the right sideline, effectively ending the game with his second, and biggest, TD of the game.

And while this was a big win for Unionville, there is no time to enjoy it, with the speedy and talented Academy Park coming to town next Friday — the Indians lost a close game last year to a team that would end up as one of the top seeds in District One, 5A in 2016. The rematch looks to be a battle.

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