Barnes, quick start help Cheltenham top West Chester East
WYNCOTE >> As soon as Cheltenham won the pregame coin toss Friday night, its choice was already made.
Normally, Panthers football coach Ryan Nase is a staunch defer to the second- half guy, but a decision he made two weeks ago was turning into a trend so he stuck with it. Cheltenham opted to take the ball and when Nate Edwards took the opening kick back for a score, it was the best start the Panthers could have hoped for.
A quick opening and a resilient ending helped the No. 7 Panthers edge No. 10 West Chester East 2821 in their first round District 1-5A playoff game in the wind and rain Friday.
“My brother, Sam Sykes, he opened it up for me and once I saw the block, they weren’t fast enough and I scored,” Edwards said of his 83-yard kick return. “It was a great boost. Once I scored, I knew we were going to have a great game. My linemen, they blocked well for Jamir (Barnes) and they opened it up for us.”
The origins of taking the ball first date back two weeks to when the Panthers faced Upper Moreland. Nase didn’t want to put the ball in the hands of UM’s Caleb Mead to start things off and then his guys responded with a firstdrive touchdown.
Last week against Wissahickon, the Panthers got the ball first and scored again on that first drive. So Nase, the second-year head coach, figured he was going to keep rolling with it.
“If we win the toss next week, we’re going to take the ball and try to score again,” Nase said with a laugh. “I was almost a little nervous we started too fast. We had to reign them in because we knew West Chester East would come back and 14 points wouldn’t be enough to win the game.”
Cheltenham’s offense didn’t even touch the field until the 6:54 mark of the first quarter and by then, the host Panthers were up 14-0. West Chester East’s first drive ended when a botched handoff led to a fumble that Cheltenham’s Zachary Gaffin scooped up and ran back about 30 yards for a score.
The game wasn’t even two minutes old and the Vikings found themselves on their heels. While WC East coach Scott Stephen would have liked a re-do on the start, he knew his team wasn’t going to collapse despite the early setbacks.
“I’m proud of these guys, you’re down 14-0 and you don’t know what direction you’re going to go but as we told them as a staff, we weren’t concerned,” Stephen said. “We knew what we had, we knew
the type of character of team we had and really, we just needed to get our footing, settle down and settle in and we did that.”
The Vikings got back in the game with their defense. WC East stopped Cheltenham’s first offensive drive short on a fourth-down try, then forced two consecutive punts. A 29-yard catch by Michael Gray on a deflected pass helped set up a 35-yard touchdown run by Kyle Cichanowsky to put the Vikings on the board after the defense’s fourth-down stand.
West Chester East tied the game 14-14 when senior quarterback Ryan Cassidy found John Wileczek for a 15-yard score. Gray and Cassidy, both seniors, along with senior running back Pierre Marchant, had gotten the Vikings settled on offense after the defense had gotten them back in the flow of the game.
“They were dynamic, we challenged them and they rose to the occasion, after it was 14-0 and you needed to get stops, they got stops,” Stephen said. “The defense allowed us to get back in the game
“We were 2-8 last year, we changed the direction of the program, we changed the perception and they set that tone back in December and it was all the way through tonight when it was 14-0. You don’t come back from that without good senior leadership. We will remember this senior group for a long time.”
With rain falling steadily and often time heavily from the opening kick, Cheltenham’s passing game never got into a true rhythm, but the running game was able to start kicking up a few yards and quarterback Adonis Hunter did connect on a key
pass, finding TJ Harris for a 21-yard score with 2:08 left in the first half. The extra point pinged off the upright, making the score 20-14, where it stayed at the half.
Out of the break, West Chester East marched the opening drive of the third quarter right down the field and took its first lead at 2120 on a 23-yard Cassidy to Wileczek pass with 8:31 left in the frame.
Cheltenham got its own fourth down stop when WC East fell a couple inches short of moving the chains on a 4th-and-9 pass. The Panthers defense, led by seniors Marcus Winfield and Daniel Gaffin on the defensive line, also came up with two crucial fourth quarter stops.
In between, Jamir Barnes took over. With his team trailing, Nase talked it out with his assistants and decided to keep feeding the junior the ball.
“Sometimes, I have a tendency
to get too cute so going into that last series on the headset I said ‘what do we think about giving Jamir the ball?’ and everyone said let’s do it,” Nase said. “He’s our guy and it’s great to have somebody like him and we’re lucky to have guys like Nate and TJ who can go up and make plays.”
“In film study, my coaches told me they kept containing the middle so I went to the outside when I saw the hole,” Barnes said. “We never gave up, our coaches told us to pick up the momentum, we made a couple plays and made it happen.”
On the 54-yard scoring drive, Barnes carried the ball seven times for 44 yards including the go-ahead 13yard touchdown run. It was no coincidence the run came off the left side, following primary blocks from Winfield and tight end Will Felix and with Harris locking up the last man at the goal line.
“My linemen, they’re my babies, I’m the father, they’re the babies,” Barnes said. “They protect me and make it happen for me.”
The win sends Cheltenham on to face No. 2 Upper Dublin next week. In their regular-season meeting, Upper Dublin beat Cheltenham 20-7 on the Panthers’ field and Nase said his players left that game knowing they could have played better.
It’s also a matchup he’s looking forward to.
“I love (UD head coach) Bret (Stover), he’s a great coach and he was a huge help to me when I got the job here so for the next week, we have to pretend not to like each other,” Nase said. “It’s really good for our league. He said it going into our last game that there was a good chance we would see each other again and just how great that would be for the (SOL American) league.”