Championship teams don’t rebuild. They reload. Many apologies from this writer for beginning with an old and tired sports cliche, but for this edition of the LaSalle College High School Explorers, it is a fairly appropriate statement.
After the Explorers claimed the Philadelphia Catholic League’s first ever PIAA football championship with an impressive 24-7 victory over State College last December, graduation reared its ugly head. Gone was career 5,000-yard passer Drew Loughery. Gone were WRs Sam Feleccia and Connor Hoffman, as well as tight end Steve Jones. Gone were offensive linemen Steve Szostak, Matt DiGiacomo and Dylan Gavin; LBs Ryan Saraceni and Anthony Cognetti; DB Vinny Migliarese and Shane Brady.
The more things seem to change, though, the more they stay the same. Because the Explorers simply plugged up the vacancies with a new batch of capable and talented players with some key pieces returning from their PIAA title team, they are back on the AAAA championship game stage, in position to claim a second consecutive golden football.
LaSalle College will meet WPIAL champion North Allegheny (14-1) in the PIAA AAAA state championship game Saturday evening at HersheyPark Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. The Explorers enter the game on a 12-game winning streak, while North Allegheny has limited its two PIAA inter-district playoff opponents to a combined 28 yards rushing.
The Explorers cracked the national rankings prior to their Eastern Final game with North Penn, checking in at #22 in the nation by the USA-Today’s Super-25 high school football poll. LaSalle finished the 2009 season ranked #24 in the nation in the USA-Today poll. Playing for PIAA titles helps draw national attention – but so does winning 36 of your last 41 games and three consecutive Philadelphia Catholic League AAAA championships.
Overall, LaSalle has won 12 Philadelphia Catholic League football championships, its first coming in 1955. The Explorers have won 460 games as a member of the PCL since it began playing football in the league in 1920. But there were two brief stints in which LaSalle did not compete in the PCL (1921-’22; 1928-’33). The 2010 season included, LaSalle has posted 11 seasons of 10+ victories, and their 14 wins in 2009 tied the school record for victories in a season, established with the PCL championship team of 1998, which went 14-0. LaSalle has posted three undefeated and untied football seasons in its history – 1955, 1957 and 1998.
And since the PCL became affiliated with the PIAA in football, beginning in 2008, the league has posted a pretty impressive PIAA playoff resume. Between LaSalle, AAA power Archbishop Wood and AA power West Catholic, the PCL has won 16 PIAA inter-district playoff games against only 5 losses. That works out to a winning percentage of .761. The three schools have played in a combined eight PIAA Eastern Final games in the last three years, winning five.
LaSalle has some history on its side entering this matchup. Prior to 2010, among all four classifications, there were 21 instances in PIAA title games where a team reached the state finals in defense of a state championship victory the previous season. In those 21 instances, the defending champion won 14 times and lost the other seven. The two most recent successful defenses of PIAA titles occurred in 2008 – Thomas Jefferson won the AAA state title and Steelton-Highspire claimed the crown in Class A. You have to go back a little ways to find the last two unsuccessful defenses of PIAA titles. Rochester surrendured its state title crown to Southern Columbia in 2002 and Manheim Central did the same against Thomas Jefferson in 2004.
The Explorers have been dominant on the defensive side of the ball. Don’t be fooled by the 35 points and more than 300 yards of offense North Penn put up on the Explorers in the Eastern Finals into thinking LaSalle’s defense is second-rate. It is not. The only other team to score more than 20 points in a game against the Explorer defensive unit was New Jersey football power Bergen Catholic, who put up 22 points in a Week 2 victory over LaSalle. In its 14 games this season, the LaSalle defense (both first string and reserves) has allowed a total of 10.4 points per game, with four shutouts. In an 11-game stretch, beginning with West Catholic and ending with Easton Area, the Explorers’ defense (including reserves) yielded a grand total of 75 points (6.8 points per game).
Key contributors to the Explorers’ defensive unit include DLs Ryan Geiger and Joe Naji, LBs Connor Daly and Tim Wade, DBs Jamal Adbur-Rahman and Sean Coleman and S Kevin Forster.
Offensively, LaSalle has many varied and talented weapons. The Explorers are more of a running-oriented offense this year than last, but it’s the ground attack that helped them claim PIAA gold last season. Starting up front with the offensive line keyed by Geiger (6’1, 260), Naji (6’2, 225), Cameron Cappo (6’2, 215), Daniel Ezzo (6’5, 235) and Sean Toner (6’1, 225), LaSalle has churned out more than 3,100 yards and 43 rushing touchdowns as a team and averages 224 yards per game on the ground.
Three main players front the Explorers rushing attack – Abdur-Rahman, Wade and Forster. Abdur-Rahman, who is bound for Villanova, leads the trio with 1,705 yards and 24 touchdowns. For his career, Adbur-Rahman has recorded 3,911 rushing yards, leaving him just 89 yards shy of becoming the 4th PCL back (and first LaSalle back) with 4,000+ career rushing yards. Abdur-Rahman has also scored touchdowns receiving, on a kickoff return and an interception return this season. Wade, only a junior who also plays linebacker on defense, has run for 439 yards and scored six total touchdowns.
Forster can be utilized in numerous ways for LaSalle on offense. When junior field general Matt Magarity missed some games with injury, Forster took over the reins of the Explorer offense and ran a near-flawless spread-option attack. He’s run for 390 yards, thrown for 302 more, and reeled in 15 passes for 181 yards, accounting for 10 total touchdowns. Forster also leads the Explorers in interceptions, with six.
Magarity has connected on 80-of-145 passes for 1,149 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, and receivers Coleman (team-best 481 yards) and Colin Buckley (244 yards) are potential targets, as are Abdur-Rahman (287 yards) and Mike Piscopo (133 yards).
On special teams, sophomore kicker Ryan Winslow has proven a steady and accurate booter, converting 49 PATs and four field goals, scoring 61 total points (13 percent of LaSalle’s season scoring output).
The Explorers have scored 467 points this season, an average of 33.3 points per game. The 467 points is unofficially the ninth-best single season scoring output in District 12/Philadelphia Catholic League history, and betters LaSalle’s 2009 season scoring output of 456 points in 15 games.
Can LaSalle make it two state titles for the PCL in a row? Find out Saturday evening.
EasternPAFootball.com’s Armand “The Godfather” Vanore helped contribute some of the information appearing in this preview.