DISTRICT CHAMPS! Unionville knocks off Springfield to advance to state semis

Unionville players all reach in to touch the PIAA District One, 5A championship trophy, that they won Friday night night by defeating Springfield, 35-25.

By Al Tustin, Staff Writer, The Times

SPRINGFIELD — To say it was a big, freakin’ deal is to understate things by an order of magnitude.

Unionville used exceptional defense and the arm and legs of senior QB Alex Gorgone to defeat top seeded Springfield (Delco), 35-25, to win the District One, 5A championship, Friday night.

The Indians (13-1) won their first district title since 1994 — now a much more grueling process than the team faced two decades ago, requiring four wins in the postseason instead of two — and will face the winner of the Archbishop Wood- Wyoming Valley West contest Saturday afternoon for the 5A Eastern Pennsylvania championship — the date and location of which is to be announced.

The winner of that game will advance to the state 5A final in Hershey, Dec. 8.

Unionville senior QB Alex Gorgone leaps in the air to celebrate winning the District 1, 5A title, as the scoreboard in the background tells the story.

Despite losing the lead in a rugged third quarter — both teams struggled with miscues and turnovers — Unionville again found the resiliency to fight back and overcome the Cougars (13-1) in the final quarter, dealing one of the top 5A teams in the state their first loss.

“I am so impressed with this team,” Indians’ head coach Pat Clark said afterward, attempting to dry off from a post-game Gatorade bath. “These guys just fought and fought and fought.”

It was true team effort to knock off a team such as Springfield, he said.

“Everybody stepped up,” he said. “We knew we’d have to battle through some mistakes and and they forced some turnovers, but we also got some turnovers, too.”

And while offense was in short supply for both teams, the Indians’ offensive line continued its improved play, opening holes on the ground — and most importantly — buying time for Gorgone to hit key passes when needed. And they did it Friday against one of the area’s top defensive lines.

“Our kids just scrap and scrap and scrap,” Clark said of his linemen, who have shown steady improvement as the season has gone on.

Unionville’s Nick Schnaars gets airborne to block a punt by Frank Bullock that set up what proved to be the winning score.

The guys up front echoed those sentiments, celebrating as a group after the game.

“We just worked really hard in practice all week,” senior captain Joe Hagen said while enjoying a moment of celebration with his fellow linemen, Pablo Aviles Bernal, another senior, and junior Cole Sheehan. “We expected what they had and all of us put in the work.”

“We built a brotherhood throughout the season,” Hagen said. “We have a group chat, we’re always talking, always improving. Now, we’re just moving on to the next week.”

It’s always love up front, but sometimes, tough love — the seniors (Hagen, Aviles Bernal and Jake Kriznuski) working with juniors Sheehan and Matt Julier, and sophomore tackle Declan Boyle.

Unionville’s Pablo Aviles Bernal takes down Springfield QB Jack Psenicska.

“We’re always criticizing each other,” Aviles Bernal said. “Our center and our tackle — a junior and sophomore — we criticize them a lot, but we love them to death…we just push each other on every drive.”

Sheehan talked about how during film sessions, the linemen constantly text each other, noting things they see, sharing, working to get better as a unit. That real teamwork has paid off as the season progressed.

And it would take that kind of teamwork to win a championship.

The contest, witnessed by a large and vocal crowd, including an enormous number of Unionville supporters, including many former Indians’ players, was a back-and-forth battle as the two defenses forced turnovers and stalled drives in a very physical matchup.

While turnovers would ultimately play a key role in the contest, early on, both teams traded them with little effect, as defenses managed to stop offenses cold. After Unionville forced a fumble by Cougars’ QB Jack Psenicka on the Springfield 26, the Indians couldn’t do anything with the ball, stalling, and turning the ball over on downs.

After a trade of punts, it was another turnover — an interception by Joe Zubillaga, who then raced 16 yards for a touchdown — that finally put Unionville on the board.

Another turnover, in the second quarter — by Unionville — led to Springfield’s first score. Gorgone lost the handle on the Indians’ 18 and Ja’Den McKenzie recovered. Two plays later, McKenzie scored on a 10-yard run. After Jack Coary missed an extra point, Unionville held a tenuous 7-6 lead.

It was there that the Indians managed to put together their first long drive of the game — keyed by Gorgone’s 35-yard pass to Zubillaga. Dante Graham scored from two yards out and with Stefan Twombly’s extra point, Unionville held a 14-6 lead with just :37 left in the half.

But a mistake tightened things before halftime. Twombly kicked the ball right to dangerous return man Kyle Long — who raced 70 yards with the ball, down to the Unionville 10. Although the defense held, Coary was able to nail a 29-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the half to make it a 14-9 game.

The third quarter almost proved to be the undoing of the Indians.

Nick Schnaars’ muffed the opening kickoff and Springfield recovered on the Unionville 28 to start the second half. The Cougars made quick work of it, grabbing the lead on a Psenicska pass to Long from 22 yards out. Despite a failed two-point run, Springfield had a 15-14 lead.

And then things got worse. After a quick three-and-out for Unionville, Springfield mounted a long drive eating up most of the third quarter. However, the Indians’ defense stiffened and held the Cougars to a 27-yard field goal by Coary to make it 18-15.

Despite losing the lead, Unionville didn’t quit — and struck right back.

Gorgone hit JT Hower on a screen that turned into a 50-yard touchdown and suddenly, Unionville had a 21-18 lead, a lead it would never surrender.

The Indians started the fourth quarter with a punt block — Schnaars found redemption, getting his hand on the ball and Theron Schilling recovered on the Cougars’ 25. Six plays later, Zubillaga powered in from the 1 to make it 28-18.

Springfield wasn’t willing to let an undefeated season go by the wayside easily. Psenicska directed a 55-yard drive quickly, capped by a 5-yard pass Liam Difonzo to make it 28-25 with 7:55 left in the game.

It was one last turnover, though, that would seal Springfield’s fate. After a brilliant punt by Declan Boyle pinned the Cougars on their own 1 (and an apparent safety, missed by the officials on the first play of the drive) Psenicska was crushed by Woodall and the ball popped loose, with Aviles Bernal falling on it in the endzone for a Unionville score, making it 35-25 with 1:54 left in the game.

The Cougars were unable to mount any serious drives in the final 90 seconds, forced to pass, and the Indians were able to hang on to their lead — and the district title.

NOTES: With the win, Unionville set a team record for wins (13) and postseason wins (4). Although the Indians did win a 3A title in 1994, that team, which posted a 7-4-1 record) needed just two wins to advance to its district championship — losing it’s third post season game 54-0 to Allentown Central Catholic. This year’s team needed to win four games, but reached the state semi-finals, a first for this football program…. Archbishop Wood (12-1 coming into Saturday) won the District 12 championship last week, defeating Simon Gratz. District 2 Champion Wyoming Valley West (7-6) upset Whitehall last week in the District final….Wood’s two losses coming into Saturday was an upset by Paramus (NJ) Catholic (5-6). The Vikings did post an impressive out of state win against New Jersey superpower Bergen Catholic, 27-21, earlier this year. Bergen Catholic is slated to play for the Parochial Group 4 state championship this weekend at MetLife Stadium against rival St. Peter’s Prep (Jersey City). Wood’s other loss came at the hands of powerhouse St. Joseph’s Prep (Philadelphia)….Wyoming Valley (7-6) has used an explosive offense to power through the playoffs, knocking off Abington Heights, Wallenpaupack Area, and Whitehall, scoring more than 30 points in all three contests….Unionville enjoyed a lights and siren escort by the Po-Mar-Lin Fire Company upon returning to the school following the game.

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