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Lions Put The “D” in “District One Champs”

Written by: on Saturday, November 21st, 2015. Follow Don Leypoldt on Twitter.


To run in the November 25th Bucks County Herald

donweek122015On a crisp night in Doylestown, the New Hope-Solebury Lions (11-1) got stronger in all three phases- offense, defense and special teams- to outslug Springfield (Montco) 14-7 and win the District One AA Championship.

The night could not have ended any better.

“I can’t even talk right now,” said ecstatic senior Matt Kolen. “I’m at a loss for words. It’s so emotional right now.”

“I came here two years ago,” stated raspy senior linebacker and captain Russell Abernathy, who started his career at Archbishop Wood. “And my number one goal was to win Districts with my new team. We finally got it done today.”

Never mind that the night could not have started any worse.

The Lions faced a 7-0 hole ten seconds into the game when Springfield’s Ben Fisher raced 78 yards for a touchdown on the opening play from scrimmage. New Hope’s offense followed that with an inauspicious three-and-out.

“We got caught off guard and called strength to the wrong side of the field,” said NH-S head coach Jim DiTulio. “There was a big hole.”

Don’t let Springfield’s 4-7 record fool you. The Spartans play in the Suburban One League against much bigger competition. The Spartans and Lions had two common foes this Fall- Bristol and Lower Moreland. Both District One Finalists won their games against Bristol and LM by similar scores.

The Spartans moved, racking up 166 yards in their first three possessions. But on a fourth down inside the Lion 10, Springfield tried their first pass of the game. NH-S cornerback Blake Hildebrant picked it off in his end zone early in the second quarter.

Now it was New Hope’s turn to march and they did, going 80 yards in eight plays, capped with junior running back Jack McKenna’s 54 yard touchdown run. McKenna picked up 139 yards on 12 touches.

“It was a fantastic block,” credit McKenna. “Kolen and the wide receiver made a huge hole. I just hit the hole and there was no one there.”

With the game knotted at seven, both teams settled into a stalemate. The Lion defense yielded just 124 yards in the final two and a half quarters.

“The captains took the guys aside and said we have to bounce back,” recalled Abernathy, who killed a second half drive with a third down tackle for no gain. “Coach drew a big heart on the board and said this is what we’re going to use to win the game of two evenly matched teams. Anyone could have won the game, but we just had a little more heart in the second half.”

Field position was critical in a defensive battle and it looked like Springfield would win the battle in the third quarter after pinning NH-S at their own two and forcing a three-and-out. Enter an unlikely weapon.

Known as a tight end, punter Kolen unleashed a 46 yard net punt to pin Springfield back. The Lion defense held and when Springfield forced another three-and-out, Kolen unleashed another bomb, a 55 yard punt, to pin Springfield back even deeper.

“Those were my two biggest punts, backed on up the goal line,” noted Kolen. “I told my center ‘Get the ball back to me and I’ll do my thing.’”

It was now the Lions’ turn to force a punt and getting the ball back at their own 42, New Hope marched 58 yards in eight plays. Sophomore quarterback Nick Garritano scored the go-ahead touchdown on a sneak with 4:21 left, but it was McKenna’s 28 yard counter on third down that keyed the drive.

“Again, it was great blocking. The pulling guard laid someone out and I just tried to make a play,” McKenna described. “I was happy there was a seam and I tried to hit it as hard as I could.”

Lion junior running back Brendan Shadle added 61 yards on 11 carries. “They were locked up on Hildebrant a lot playing press coverage,” DiTulio noted on his run oriented game plan. “We were having success running the ball inside. I like to throw the ball but if we’re having success, you have to stick to what is working.”

The New Hope defense has yielded double digit points just twice all season. When McKenna tripped up slippery Springfield quarterback Justin Hill for a five yard loss in the game’s final minute, it cemented New Hope’s second District One title.

“We’ve been a great defensive team all year and they came out and hit us in the mouth,” McKenna credited. “They had a few close drives but we bent and didn’t break. They weren’t getting into the end zone for the rest of the game.”

Fisher ended up with 163 yards on 23 carries. Hill picked up 86 yards on 16 rushes. On several broken plays, the elusive Hill looked more like an eel than a high school student, breaking multiple tackles and making gains out of certain losses.

The Lions face an interesting week, playing traditional Thanksgiving rival South Hunterdon at home on Wednesday night and then the West Catholic/Del Val Charter winner on Saturday in the first round of states.

“Every year, we set goals for our team. We knew going into camp that we had a special group,” said DiTulio, “and if we worked hard we could achieve these goals.”

“We’ve been putting it all together since January,” said Kolen. “We weren’t going to let Springfield steal it from us.” After Friday, that District One championship trophy is secure in New Hope-Solebury.


Don Leypoldt’s book Keystones and Wishbones: Faith, Values and Football in the Delaware Valley is now available on Amazon! The book features interviews with over a dozen NFL veterans, all with Delaware Valley ties. Click here to order:


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