Thursday, November 30, 2023

PIAA high school football: After a thrilling district win, Nazareth gets to prep for the Prep again

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In November 2019, Nazareth stunned Parkland 22-21 for the District 11 6A title, using a trick play on a 2-point conversion for the deciding points in overtime.

A week later, the Blue Eagles were overwhelmed 45-24 by St. Joe’s Prep in the state quarterfinals.

Friday night, Nazareth duplicated its extraordinary feat of four years ago, beating Parkland again thanks in large part to a gadget play that provided a 2-point conversion for the game-winning points in overtime.

But here’s the part where the Blue Eagles would like to change the script from 2019: They’re get another crack at the perennial powerhouse from the Philadelphia Catholic League, this time in a 1 p.m. game Saturday at the Northeast Philadelphia Supersite.

While Nazareth (12-1) had to work hard through the final play to win the District 11 championship Friday night, Prep had little trouble routing Lincoln High School for the District 12 title Saturday in a game played at Northeast.

Blue Eagles coach Tom Falzone hadn’t see film on Prep as of noon Sunday, but he knows what to expect.

“I don’t have a lot of info on them as far as what they do, but we know what we’re up against,” Falzone said. “Their top three receivers — one guy got an offer to Kentucky, another guy’s got an offer to West Virginia and another guy has an offer to Cincinnati. And that’s just one position group.”

Falzone is focusing on the positive and that’s getting to spend another week with his players.

“It’s going to be an awesome week,” he said. “It makes Thanksgiving a lot more interesting for everybody. We’re going to prep like we do every week and get these kids ready to go. We’ll go after it and see what happens on Saturday.”

St. Joe’s Prep routed Parkland 52-21 in last year’s quarterfinals en route to the PIAA 6A title. The Hawks followed the win over Parkland with one-sided wins over Garnet Valley 48-7 and Harrisburg 42-7 on their way to their seventh state championship in 10 years. They also lost in two PIAA finals.

In the game over Lincoln, senior quarterback and Cincinnati commit Samaj Jones passed for two touchdowns and ran for one. He was the 2022 Pennsylvania 6A player of the year.

Jones operates behind a rugged offensive line featuring Kevin Towns, John Paul Schrieber, Lakeem Steele, Christian Leonard, Shane Toolan and tight end Denzel Felder. The Hawks lost  junior left guard Kahul Stewart to the transfer ineligible rules, but the St. Joe’s line hasn’t missed a beat.

The Hawks, who are ranked seventh in the nation by USA Today, have just one loss. The 17-14 setback came in their opener against IMG Academy of Bradenton, Florida, which is ranked fourth in the country by USA Today.

“They play a national schedule,” Falzone said. “They have only played four games in Pennsylvania in the regular season. All of the rest of their games it seems have been around the world. The PIAA is more concerned about the kind of mouthpiece the kids are using or how much eye black they are wearing or if their shirts are tucked in. They see no kind of issue with this kind of matchup. We’re just a bunch of kids from the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, going against a bunch of kids from multiple states. We’re just going to give it our best shot.”

The kids from Nazareth navigated the highly competitive Eastern Pennsylvania Conference South, losing only their first game to Parkland 31-24 on Sept 24. They were able to win three straight district games despite losing their own talented offensive player, wide receiver Caleb Newsome, to the PIAA postseason eligibility rules.

They have players with Division I aspirations in Sean Kinney and Mason Kuehner and in going against star-studded Prep they’ll get a better gauge of where they stand.

Falzone, a former Catasauqua player and coach, never misses the Catty-Northampton game on Thanksgiving morning and doesn’t intend on missing this one, which will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Rough Riders’ Alumni Field. It’s extra special because it’s the 100th meeting.

“We’re going to bring them in early that day and go 8 to 9 and I’ll be out there by 9:30,” Falzone said. “Almost our whole staff is from Catty and they’ll be at the game after our practice. It’s going to be neat for the kids to have this opportunity to have a football practice on Thanksgiving morning. That’s something they’re always going to remember. That’s something every team wants to do. So, we’ll enjoy the week. I love these kids. What they have been able to do and accomplish so far has been amazing. I am lucky to have this group. I feel blessed to be able to coach them.”

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