Unionville overcomes slow start, defeats Marple Newtown to advance to Section 1 finals

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Unionville’s JT Hower leaps high to grab his second interception of the game against Marple Newtown. Jim Gill photo.

By Al Tustin, Staff Writer, The Times

EAST MARLBOROUGH – With a bit less than three minutes left in the first quarter, it looked like Unionville’s football team had run out of answers against Marple Newtown — and was about to get run out of the District One, 5A playoffs.

Down 14-0 with 2:46 left in the first quarter, the Indians were out of sync on offense and seemingly unable to stop the Tigers’ offense — playing without star QB Anthony Paoletti — and on the verge of getting blown out of the semi-finals of the district playoffs.

But as has been the case more than once in this magical 2017 season, Unionville proved resilient, overcame the sluggish start, tied the game — twice — before halftime and then dominated the second half to cruise to a 36-21 win to advance to next Friday night’s Sectional 5A championship game at top seeded Springfield (Delco).

Unionville’s Joe Zubillaga scores the final TD, Friday, against Marple Newtown. Jim Gill photo.

While a lot of high school football teams might have looked at the scoreboard in that first quarter and thought the game — and the season — was over, this Unionville team found something deep inside to mount a powerful comeback over the 8-5 Tigers.

“We kind of settled in and I was really proud of the way the kids focused and bounced back,” Unionville Head Coach Pat Clark said afterward.

This marks the Indians (12-1) first-ever appearance in a sectional final as well as the school’s first 12-win season.

“It’s awesome,” Clark said, betraying a bit of emotion. “I’m really impressed with this group. We ask these kids to do so much and for them to actually get to this point, to get a reward for their hard work…there are very few times in life where they get this chance, but they earned it.”

While there were too many key plays and players to list, senior defensive back/wideout JT Hower had maybe his most dominant game of his strong career, picking off two passes from Aiden Mathes, sparking a tying score in the final seconds of the first half with an electric 91 yards kickoff return and catching six passes for 96 yards in the win.

Unionville’s Pedro Aviles Bernal closes in on Marple Newtown’s Marlon Weathers and Sam Ross closes from behind. After a tough start, the Indians’ defense completely shut down the Tigers in the second half. Jim Gill photo.

“Defensively, we had a good scheme,” Hower said, deflecting a bit from an inquiry about his two interceptions in the game. “We were preparing for their quarterback Paoletti to play and when he showed up, it was a bit of a surprise to have him not being (dressed). We knew they were going to run a lot of Wildcat — Marlon Weathers is a really good player — so, we kind of keyed on that and trusted our defensive backs to play man, and it worked out for us. They had a new quarterback and we made some plays on the ball.”

And while Hower managed to make key plays, it was a team effort to shake off the early struggles and get things moving in the right direction. Senior QB Alex Gorgone found his rhythm after a slow start to finish 10 of 19 for 173 yards. The Indians’ defense — which seemed caught a bit off guard by Paoletti not playing, his injury last week had been described as merely a “stinger” — adjusted and was able to contain backs Weathers and Te’ron Johnson and star wideout Dash Dulgerian.

“That’s a good football team (Marple Newtown),” Clark said. “They’re big, they’re physical. Just because their quarterback wasn’t playing doesn’t mean they were going to roll over and lay down. They’re in the district semifinals for a reason.”

While the cold — and playing their first semifinal in more than a decade — seemed to inhibit the third seeded Indians, the seventh seeded Tigers, who upset No. 2 seed Upper Moreland last week, played free and loose in the early going.

Unionville sputtered on the opening drive, unable to get connections on its passing game when the run game stalled. The Indians seemed a bit stunned when Mathes — a junior filling in for one of the area’s top QBs — hit a pair of long passes, the second of which was a 34-yard scoring throw to Dulgerian.

Three minutes later, after Unionville’s offense was held to a three-and-out, the Tigers again marched down the field, sparked by a bit of razzle-dazzle on a halfback option pass by Brian Joslin to Dulgerian for 33 yards. Mathes connected on his second TD pass of the night — to the dangerous Dugerian — and very suddenly, Unionville found itself in a 14-0 hole — which is how things stood at the start of the second quarter.

After the Indians’ defense was finally able to get a stop, Hower grabbed the ensuing punt and raced from the 50 down to the Marple Newtown 28. A couple of key runs by Joe Zubillaga and a pass — 18 yards from Gorgone to Hower — set up Dante Graham’s smash into the end zone from two yards out. Stephon Twombly — filling in for injured kicker Dominic Braithwaite — missed on the extra point try, to leave Unionville trailing 14-6.

After stopping the Tigers again — this time on a three-and-out — the Indians again marched right down the field, as Gorgone began to get hot in the passing game, hitting a pair of throws to first Zubillaga and then Hower for big gains. Zubillaga scored from  seven yards out and then Gorgone hit Hower for the two-point conversion pass to tie the game at 14-14.

Although the Tigers were stopped quickly on their next possession — Unionville gave them a big opportunity when Zubillaga fumbled on the Unionville 33. Marple Newtown needed seven plays, but managed to retake the lead on Mathes’ pass to Luke Cantwell, giving the Tigers a 21-14 lead with just :24 left in the half.

Unionville and Hower, weren’t quite ready to call it a half, though.

Hower caught the ensuing kickoff on the 1-yard line and raced up the right sideline — 91 yards — to the Marple 8 with about :10 left in the half. Gorgone cooly hit Zubillaga with a scoring TD pass and Twombly hit the extra point and the game was tied at the half.

After digging their way out of a hole in the first half, the Indians kicked on the afterburners in the second half, dominating the Tigers — especially on defense — taking complete control of the contest.

After stopping Marple’s opening drive, Gorgone used his arm and feet to lead Unionville down the field, hitting Zubillaga with a 49-yard TD pass. A Zubillaga two-point conversion run gave the Indians’ their first lead, 29-21.

In the final quarter, Unionville mounted a lengthy scoring drive — eating the clock and putting the game away — with Zubillaga scoring on a 1-yard run to make it 36-21.

In taking on Springfield (Delco) in the sectional final, Unionville will likely be facing its toughest matchup of the season. While the two teams have not played each other, they do have a number of common opponents: Springfield beat Strath Haven, Glen Mills, and Rustin — which Unionville also defeated. Springfield also boasts a win over powerful Garnet Valley — which will take on Coatesville next week in the 6A Sectional Final.

The Cougars (13-0) feature a powerful running game and a stifling defense.

The winner of Friday’s game may find itself with a promising route to the state final at Hershey Dec. 8 — and the East 5A title. Wyoming Valley (6-6) upset Whitehall in the semis and will play either Archbishop Wood (8-2) or Simon Gratz (7-3-1), who play their semifinal matchup Saturday.

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