FORT WASHINGTON – The lights in Cardinal Stadium had been turned out, but still some of Upper Dublin’s players were reluctant to leave. Saying good bye to the field that had been the site of so many good memories over the last four years was no easy task.
As the handful of seniors left the field in darkness, they received an unexpected greeting.
A voice from a group of Flying Cardinal fans waiting at the gate shouted, “You guys are champions,” and as if on cue, the fans began chanting, “We are…UD. We are…UD.”
It had been a special season for the Flying Cardinals and their fans. Upper Dublin had captured a share of the SOL American Conference for the second time in as many years and, as a result, earned the fifth seed in the AAAA East bracket.
Unfortunately, all of those accomplishments were temporarily forgotten in the disappointment of Friday night’s 26-15 season-ending loss at the hands of 12th-seeded Conestoga.
“This hurts pretty bad,” senior Mark Visco said. “We didn’t want to come off this field with a loss. We did everything we could to not have a loss on this field. We kept battling.”
But in the end, the Pioneers were just too big and too strong for the Flying Cardinals, who seemed to give up several inches and more than a few pounds at just about every position.
“We’re always working hard to do our best,” senior Dom Matteo said. “We’re studying film and watching the other team, and we get together during the off times.
“Seeing the season end is probably one of the hardest things. These guys are like a family. You spend four to five months together throughout summer and fall – every day, three or four hours at a time. To know you’re not going to see these kids that much when you go to college – it’s the worst feeling.
“We’re like brothers. We’re always on each other, picking each other up. It’s so hard.”
Matteo is generously listed as 5-7, 155 in the program, but forget about size. It doesn’t matter. Matteo – Derek Giannetti’s favorite target – hauled in seven passes for 78 yards. All told, Giannnetti completed 14 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
“Derek has a great arm,” Matteo said. “He worked hard to get to where he is. We just need to get open.”
When star running back Josh Mastromatto (ankle injury) left the field with the assistance of two trainers late in the first half and did not return, it was clear that the Cardinals would have to look elsewhere for their firepower.
They found it in Visco.
The senior running back, who usually blocks far more than he runs, rushed for 105 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“All year, most of our team was playing two ways,” he said. “Every injury is like two guys went down instead of one.
“When Stro went out, that hurt us pretty bad, but we knew what we had to do. Coach trusted me with the ball, and we did our best to stay in it, but their size and depth – we were just getting tired, and they were able to stay with their foot on the gas.”
On the game’s opening drive, the Cardinals marched from their own 35 to the Pioneers’ 18 where they turned the ball over on downs.
Conestoga needed just seven plays to get on the scoreboard when Blair Brooks, who had a game-high 119 yards on 11 carries, took it in from three yards out.
A Pioneer interception set the stage for a 76-yard scoring drive that culminated with quarterback Mike Bronzino finding Griffin Stewart for a 38-yard strike and a 14-0 lead.
Unfazed, the Cardinals came back with an 11-play drive that featured a whole lot of Visco, who had six carries and one reception. The senior running back bulled his way up the middle for a one-yard touchdown run that – after P.J. Seyfried’s extra point – made it a 14-7 game.
“You talk about their size, but if you look at that drive – we pounded the ball right down their throats,” coach Bret Stover said. “Our kids wanted it.
“We got behind our big guys. That was a big drive for us. It kind of settled the game for us.”
When Eric Painter recovered a fumble at the Pioneer’s 40-yard line, the Cardinals were back in business, but this drive proved costly as the Cardinals lost Mastromatto, who was injured going up for a pass.
A holding call erased a successful flea flicker, but Robbie Swartz hauled in a 14-yard pass, and it looked as though the Cardinals were going to even things up, but a dropped pass on the goal line allowed the Pioneers to go into halftime with a 14-7 lead.
“To lose Josh (Mastromatto) - it would have been very easy for the whole team to go in the tank, and these guys did not do that,” Stover said. “It’s a senior-led team, and that’s the way they are.”
Conestoga scored a pair of touchdowns to go on top 26-7, but the Cardinals didn’t go down quietly. They answered with a 65-yard scoring drive that featured three completions to Matteo and was capped by a two-yard Visco touchdown run. The two-point conversion from Giannetti to Hartman made it a 26-15 game with 5:02 remaining.
“We’re a team with a lot of heart,” Visco said. “We’ll keep battling until the last whistle, which I think we did. Unfortunately, some plays didn’t go our way.”
The Cardinals would get no closer the rest of the way as Pioneers held on for the big win.
“It’s disappointing, and they can’t see it right now, but they have to understand that what will shine through is what these guys did – the number five seed in District One,” Stover said. “You’re talking about a program that was 0-11 four years ago.
“These guys had 16 wins in two years, which is more than we had in four years combined. We’re moving in the right direction. I’m proud of my guys. We got beat by a better club tonight, and there’s no shame in that.”
Stover bids farewell to 14 seniors.
“(These) are guys that have just dedicated themselves to being football players,” the Cardinals’ coach said. “The film study, the off-season workouts – every school does it, but these guys know they need to do the little stuff to make up for what they lack in size.
“They have laid the blueprint for the guys that are going to follow them. This will be a tough group to replace.”
The Cardinals closed out the year with an 8-2 record.
CONESTOGA 26, UPPER DUBLIN 15
Conestoga 7 7 6 6-26
Upper Dublin 0 7 0 8-15
C-Brooks 3 run (Deluca kick)
C-Stewart 38 pass from Bronzino (Deluca kick)
UD-Visco 1 run (Seyfried kick)
C-Brooks 21 run (kick failed)
C-Barley 65 pass from Bronzino (run failed)
UD-Visco 2 run (Hartman pass from Giannetti)
First Downs 15 19
Rushing Yards 228 143
Passing Yards 167 131
Total Yards 395 274
Passing (C-A-I) 6-9-0 14-30-3
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-0
Penalties-Yds. 5-58 5-56
Punts-Yds. 1-36 1-43
Conestoga – Brooks, 11-119, 2 TDs; Dennis, 17-86; Bronzino, 12-23.
Upper Dublin – Visco, 22-105, 2 TDs; Mastromatto, 7-29; Swartz, 3-9.
Conestoga – Bronzino , 6-8-167, 2 TDs; Mariani, 0-1-0.
Upper Dublin – Giannetti, 14-30-131, 2 TDs, 3 INTs.
Conestoga – Barley, 2-82, 1 TD; Stewart, 2-76, 1 TD; Dennis, 1-5; Mariani, 1-4.
Upper Dublin – Matteo 7-78; Hartman, 3-25; Visco, 2-16; Mastromatto, 1-14; Swartz, 1-(-2).