Upper Dublin defeated neighboring rival Plymouth Whitemarsh to earn a spot in next week’s District 1 5A final. Photos provided courtesy of Geanine Jamison Photography. Check back for a gallery: https://solsports.zenfolio.com/f745224687
District 1 5A semifinal
#1-1 Upper Dublin 30, #1-4 Plymouth Whitemarsh 0
For 365 days, give or take a few, it was there.
It wasn't always at the forefront, but any opportunity that Upper Dublin had, it took time to prepare for a rematch with Plymouth Whitemarsh. There was no guarantee it would even happen, but on the chance the Cardinals got their rematch with the Colonials in the District 1 5A playoffs, they wanted - needed - to be ready.
Friday night, amidst the snow flurries and the cold, the Cardinals got their payback.
After being gashed over and over by PW in the district quarterfinals last year in a 42-36 overtime loss, Upper Dublin's defense completely shut down the Colonials and punched a ticket to a second District 1 final in the last three years.
“We know we still have work to do, but this was one of the things we needed to get out of our system,” UD coach Bret Stover said. “Honestly, if we didn’t get to beat PW along the way, it would probably never leave our system. It’s not a vendetta or anything like that, but it was a tough loss to handle for us. As great a game as it was, it was still tough for us.”
"This has been a sour taste in our mouth for the last year,” UD senior wideout/linebacker Griffin Pensabene said. “I've been thinking about this game ever since we walked off the field at Wissahickon last year. I don't know if I'd say I like any of those guys, but I respect all of them. That's a hell of a football team and we came out here, competed with them and got it done."
Pensabene had a great game last year, but as the senior noted, it came in a losing effort. A wild game saw PW lead early before the Cardinals staged a furious rally to take a lead, only to give up a tying score and proceeded to lose in overtime last season.
The UD senior had a much better time this year, including a 36-yard interception return touchdown during UD's rampant fourth quarter that put the game away. Getting to that point was a credit to the defense as a whole, with the unit holding Plymouth Whitemarsh to 27 total yards of offense on the night and picking up the slack for an offense that sputtered out of the gate.
"Honestly, it's just committing to each other," UD senior defensive end Riley Hackett said. "If each person tries to do their own thing, you're not going to be able to stop an offense like that but when you commit to each other and everyone does their job, you can shut down a team like that."
Hackett, who also plays offensive tackle and is a co-captain, had a big sack in the third quarter with UD clinging to a 7-0 lead that helped force a punt and gave UD a possession that ended with Austin Pendleton booting a field goal.
“We were able to go into the wind and get a field goal,” Stover said. “Pendleton kicked it into the teeth of it, bent it back in there, but it was not as bad as it was in the first half, and that was a big help for us.”
Even with two defensive touchdowns in the game, there wasn't one dominant player on the defensive side.
It needed to be a team effort after a slow start from the usually high-powered offense. With swirling winds and precipitation ranging from a few flakes to full-on snow flurries in the first half, the Cardinals spent much of the first quarter trying to recover from their miscues.
UD's first drive ended with a lost fumble, its second stopped with a punt after four snaps and a lost fumble on a punt return didn't even let the Cards get a third possession before the quarter horn sounded. Despite a 14-7 edge in snaps, all PW had was a 0-0 tie due to UD's defense.
"We turned the ball over early, but we hung in," UD coach Bret Stover said. "We changed our defensive plan up, we kind of worked on it all summer - anytime we could get downtime, we worked on the plan for these guys - there was no guarantee we were going to see them.
"We knew if we did, we didn't do enough last year to score enough or stop them enough and we went back to work."
The flu has been running wild in Montgomery County over the past few weeks. Upper Dublin had its bout with the virus last week, and unfortunately for the Colonials, it hit them hard this week.
PW was down a few players on Friday including junior Luke Winterbottom, who has excelled as a dual role running back/linebacker this fall. Colonials coach Dan Chang acknowledged the difference not having Winterbottom available made Friday but added that teammates were ready to step in and do their part.
"Credit goes to Upper Dublin, they're a very good team, and they have guys everywhere and at every position," Chang said. "We got shut down offensively and that's on me. Our guys battled hard all night, but we couldn't move the ball. It's hard giving these guys a short field and keeping our 'D' on the field all that time."
Stover also noted that PW is a different offense when it's at full power, but it didn't change his defense's effort when they saw the Colonials were without a key piece.
"When you're missing a good player like (Winterbottom), it makes a whole lot of difference, because you can narrow down your focus," Stover said. "(Tommy Hannon) 34 is tough, (Aiden O'Brien) 4 is obviously tough, so it makes it a little easier when they're missing a piece."
O'Brien, PW's senior co-captain and the engine of the team at quarterback and linebacker, had been a huge reason the Colonials topped the Cardinals last year. Keeping him bottled up, which UD did by keeping the senior to just one completion for four yards and negative 14 yards rushing on 18 carriers, was paramount.
"(O'Brien) is probably pound-for-pound the toughest kid in Suburban One League, 100 percent, total respect for (No.) 4," Stover said.
A good punt return by Chris Kohlbrenner early in the second quarter put UD on the better side of the 50 and the offense finally got a spark when Shyne Roberts broke free for a 39-yard touchdown run in a cloud of snow flurries with 10:12 left in the half. Kohlbrenner and Roberts have been key cogs on defense, and both would make some key plays after halftime.
“We had a snow squall at the end of the second quarter, and we were going into it,” Stover said. “Really, the second quarter was just about surviving and getting into halftime.”
Senior quarterback Colin O'Sullivan threw just two passes in the first half and the co-captain put blame on himself for some confusion offensively and used the break to reset.
"It was definitely my first time playing in weather like that, there was some miscommunication with the guys up front so we came in here and fixed it up," said O'Sullivan, who finished with 98 yards passing. "Our offense, our weapons, those guys up front, it's hard to shut us down for four quarters. We came in, talked, got our stuff down and were able to go back out and play our game."
With his team receiving the second half kick, all Stover was worried about after getting the first score was taking it to the half.
"I couldn't get to halftime quick enough. I went for it on 4th-and-one from I think our 11, and in my career, you can probably count on one hand the amount of times I've done that," Stover said. "It worked. It was cool to play in the snow, none of them had ever played in it. I've played in it, coached in it, it's fun."
That fourth-down conversion was big and just as big were the two punts the defense forced around that drive that helped kill clock and keep PW's offense stalling. Jacob Cornbluth recorded a sack in there, Kyree Butler made a big stop on a short yardage run and the line ate up a third-and-short attempt to force the second punt.
"There's nowhere close to enough credit to those guys," O'Sullivan said. "That starting defense, I'd be surprised if they're allowing more than three points per game, they're amazing and it all starts with Coach (Dave) Sowers, he puts in hours, hours and hours of film to get us prepared so those guys can just play."
Pensabene, who has emerged on defense this season, echoed the credit for Sowers - the team's longtime defensive coordinator.
"He's one of the best coaches in the state," Pensabene said. "He's at it all day, all night, studying these guys, running through analytics, I think he knows everything they're doing. We trust him, trust he knows what he's doing, and we go to work. They were averaging what, 29 points per game and we gave up zero, so I'm really happy with that."
“Our defense played well all night,” Stover added. “Dave had a really good plan. It’s been 365 days in the making because he was not happy with the way that it ended last year. None of us were.
“He took it personally, he did his work, and the kids were really, really great all week. They put a text out and said, ‘Hey coach, can we come in on Sunday to watch film?’ We made it happen. Kudos to those players for wanting to come in. We had a good majority come in to watch film from last week and get a jump on Plymouth Whitemarsh because they wanted it pretty bad as well.”
Pendleton's field goal made it 10-0 with 4:25 left in the third quarter. Dominick Paone recorded UD's third sack of the night on the ensuing drive and Staring Reaves made a key stop on a third down option play to force yet another punt - the Cardinal defense made the Colonials kick the ball away eight times - and give the offense another possession.
The eight-minute drive, which spanned 82 yards on 14 plays and ate the rest of the third quarter and a good chunk of the fourth, ended with O'Sullivan hitting DJ Cerisier for a nine-yard score. Even with PW blocking the extra point, it was a three-score game that put the Colonials into desperation mode.
"It was kind of a summation of our season,” Stover said. “We’ve been doing that. We had a fumble early, we had a punt return fumble, we never got any offensive momentum in that first half. Then we just got it clicking in the third quarter, then you flip the wind. You got DJ, DJ is a big-body kid. He doesn’t look that big, but he’s a basketball player. He knows how to position himself."
Upper Dublin's defense would put the game away from there. Hackett had a tackle for loss to start the next drive and the pressure continued on third down when Roberts burst through the line and forced up a rushed throw. The ball found a receiver, but not one wearing a Colonials’ uniform.
"Shyne's one of the best defensive tackles in the state, he got there as fast as he could and when I saw the running back going into the flat, I knew I had to pick him up," Pensabene said. "I think with the pressure, Aiden threw it a little bit short, I got a good catch - it was my first pick of the year and first pick-six ever - it's an incredible feeling, especially to do it in a semifinal game."
PW fumbled the next snap, with Nyles Bunn-McNeill recovering it although the Cardinals drive stalled when Joey Foy swatted down a fourth-down pass for a turnover on downs. It wasn't enough to slow UD's roll as the next snap was also a fumble and this time, Chris Kohlbrenner scooped it up and ran it 10 yards in for a score.
As a freshman in 2020, Kohlbrenner made some important defensive plays in UD's district title run and after coming back from a hand injury earlier this season, the junior defensive back is at it again.
"We just followed what our coaches were telling us," Kohlbrenner said. "They prepared us really well the entire week and we all swarmed to the ball. The atmosphere here was amazing, our student section was loud, our 2021 seniors came back, the whole night was just amazing."
While the Cardinals spent roughly 365 days preparing to see PW again, it didn't mean they were expecting it to be a free win.
"I was a little nervous for this game, just because of the way they run their offense, it's hard to stop," Kohlbrenner said. "I trusted in the coaches and when you're out there, wrap up and make the tackle."
At the conclusion of the game, after the final team talk, PW’s seniors just sat on the field together. They didn't say anything, but their shared silence spoke enough for them. Reflecting on his team's effort, Stover looked their way and emphasized, having done the same with his seniors last year.
Whatever they were feeling at the moment, a frigid chill hanging over the end of their season, the PW seniors had authored quite a story. They were a crucial part of back-to-back SOL American conference titles and two runs to the District 1 quarterfinals, powered a prolific offense this fall and a defense that pounced on any error an opponent made.
"They're the standard here in how they act and what they do," said Chang, whose team closed out its season with a 10-3 record. "It's no small accomplishment going through and winning that league two years in a row. Our guys are taking that example, they're hungry and ready to go back and work for next year.
"They're making it the norm, it's now the expectation for us. It's not good enough to just win the league title, we want to continue to go on."
UD (13-0, 6-0 SOL) will host No. 3 West Chester Rustin in the district title game next Friday at 7 pm. The Golden Knights and Cardinals have become frequent foes in the playoffs in recent years and like PW, present a tough and well-run offense to prepare for.
"We've seen the Wing-T and we have history with Rustin," Stover said. "They're well-coached, Mike St. Clair does a great job and hats off to him for a win tonight - on the road down there, that's not an easy place to play football."
Pensabene couldn't contain his excitement noting that the game will be back at "The Nest" while Hackett added he's fired up for his first district final experience after being injured as a sophomore.
Stover's eldest son Ryan - the team's quarterback when the Cardinals won the old 4A title in 2015 - was at Friday's game and with the Thanksgiving break coming up next week, it's a safe bet there will be plenty of former players in attendance as UD tries to add to the titles it won in 2018 and 2020.
"Our tradition is we practice Thursday morning, we'll be here at seven in the morning, do our walk-through, the parents will cook breakfast sandwiches for us and off we'll go to Thanksgiving," Stover said. "It's a really cool week, a lot of our alumni will come back. They'll be hanging out - and trying to get free food - but it's always a cool experience and we're excited.
"It's another chance, really, it's just one more week to spend with these guys. That's the icing on the cake for me."
UPPER DUBLIN 0 7 3 20 - 30
PLYMOUTH WHITEMARSH 0 0 0 0 - 0