By MATT De GEORGE
RIDLEY TWP. — The first step is often the hardest, as the Ridley football team knows all too well.
Were it not for a stellar defense effort Friday, that first playoff step could easily have devolved into yet another stumble.
For the first time since its District One title run in 2009, the second-seeded Green Raiders have a playoff win to their names, a narrow 20-17 decision against No. 15 Downingtown West.
“We needed at least to get this first game in,” linebacker Shane Dougherty said. “After we get this, it takes a lot of pressure off, especially since we haven’t won one. Whatever we do now, it’s up to us to see how far we go.”
“I’m happy for the seniors,” Ridley coach Dennis Decker said. “They’ve put in so much time and so much effort to get their first playoff victory. It was a big thing for them, and it’s a monkey off their backs.”
It’s a win that wouldn’t have been possible without a defense that stiffened after some early struggles and yielded just three points in the last three quarters.
The defense inherited a 14-3 deficit after one quarter, unable to cope early on with the hurry-up attack of the Whippets. It didn’t help that their time on the sidelines was short thanks to three fumbles on the evening by the Green Raiders’ enigmatic offense, which even took three possessions to get the first down that finally iced the game.
But in bend-but-don’t-break fashion, the Green Raiders forced Downingtown West into three field-goal attempts, two of which were missed. In the fourth quarter alone, they forced two.
“The first half, (Downingtown West) did a real nice job getting us off the ball,” Decker said. “We made some adjustments at halftime. … Like I’ve said before, we don’t have a lot of individuals on defense. We play as a unit, and I think that showed tonight.”
The impact of the defense was epitomized by the Whippets’ last drive. After two straight completions by Nick Pagel to Teddy Varano set Downingtown West up with a 2nd-and-short at their 41, the Green Raiders decided they would get no further.
Defensive lineman Kenny Oaks burst through the line to corral Sean Sauder for one of his two tackles for loss. The next play, Jabree Savoy made the perfect read on an option pitch, sticking Mitch Meleski in the backfield for a four-yard loss.
“I was just reading the running back,” the junior defensive back said. “It was read and react. I was keying on the running back, I knew I had him and I just did what I had to do.”
Meleski had to be carted off with what was likely a rib injury; he was responsive, but required assistance breathing and remained on the field for about 10 minutes while paramedics attended to him.
“Mitch is like a brother to me,” Downingtown captain Danny Speca said. “He’s so much more than a teammate. You see him go down, and Mitch has been hurt a lot and he’s a really tough kid, so it’s like, ‘alright man, get up.’ And then once you see that cart coming out, your heart just drops. We haven’t stopped praying for him, and we’re hoping for the best.”
After the break, it was Rich Coia who stepped up. In addition to 83 yards on the ground, including a 1-yard score that gave Ridley its only lead, Coia blasted around the end like he was shot out of a cannon, sacking and stripping Pagel on fourth down.
“We knew to keep them to the outside,” Coia said. “We knew they like to screen and all that and we needed to respect everything that they do. I was untouched off the outside, and there was nothing else on my mind than to put the game away. I gave it all I got, and I came out with the play.”
It was a good thing the Ridley (11-0) defense came to play, because the offense didn’t do them many favors, picking up yardage in chunks but unable to convert in the red zone.
Darren Washington, who settled down to rush for 131 yards on 23 carries and a score, fumbled his first carry, which was scooped up by Varano and returned to the 10. Two plays later, Pagel found Meleski on a screen pass to open the scoring.
Meleski found paydirt on the Whippets’ next possession, a 3-yard burst. From there on out, though, it was three points on just eight possession for the upset-minded Whippets (7-4).
“It’s not just the kicker,” Downingtown West coach Mike Milano said about the missed chances. “We’re out there in the zone. We had a big holding call that negated a big play in there once. It’s tough. We felt like we left some points on the field, and we’re crushed that we didn’t win.”
Ridley left points on the field early, but in a rare turn of events, the advantage in the kicking game was decidedly on their side. Kelton Heverly banged home field goals of 26 and 23 yards in the first half, salvaging points from sputtering drives. Ridley finally broke through when Washington burst around left end with 6:21 left in the first half and scampered down the sideline for a 16-yard score.
It sent the Green Raiders into halftime down 14-13, the identical margin by which they were eliminated in 2009 as the No. 1 seed at the hands of West Chester Henderson.
The defense again bailed out the offense in the second half, making a stand when Downintown West’s Speca recovered a Collin Wright fumble near midfield. A bad snap and a minus-7 yard punt set up the Green Raiders at midfield, and after Coia’s 16-yard bullrush got them down to the 2, he finished things off two plays later with the decisive score.
“We know our defense can keep us in games,” said Dougherty, who had five tackles for loss and two pass breakups. “Everyone says offense wins game, defense wins championships. If we want to go far, we need to rely on our defense, and I think we did that tonight.”
Ridley 20, Downingtown West 17
Downingtown West 14 0 0 3 — 17
Ridley 3 10 7 0 —20
DW: Meleski 13 pass from Pagel (Caruso kick)
RID: Heverly 26 field goal
DW: Meleski 3 run (Caruso kick)
RID: Heverly 23 field goal
RID: Washington 16 run (Heverly kick)
RID: Coia 1 run (Heverly kick)
DW: Caruso 37 field goal
First downs 16 17
Rushing yards 161 269
Passing yards 117 63
Total yards 278 332
Passing 12-23-0 5-11-0
Punts-Average 4-15.0 3-30.7
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 3-3
Penalties-Yards 2-23 2-10
Rushing: Downingtown West — Bunhu 15-95, Meleski 15-51, Pagel 8-17, Sauder 2-(minus-2). Ridley — Washington 23-131, Coia 11-83, Dougherty 7-36, Crowley 4-29, Team 1-(-1), Wright 2-(-9).
Passing: Downingtown West — Pagel 13-22-0, 117; Harlow 0-1-0, 0. Ridley — Wright 5-11-0, 63.
Receiving: Downingtown West — Varano 5-44, Meleski 3-25, Bunhu 2-16, Schmitt 2-12, Sauder 1-20. Ridley — Smoluk 3-41, Washington 1-20, Harris 1-2.