It was a high school football playoff for the ages.
District 12's St. Joseph's Prep outlasted District 1's Coatesville, 53-49, last season in a thrilling PIAA Class 6A semifinal at Downingtown West. The Hawks rallied after falling behind by 21-3 late in the second quarter and 28-10 early in the third.
The PIAA changed its football playoff format in 6A for 2018 and 2019. District 12 (Philadelphia) was moved to the western half of the bracket, and its titlist will have to first beat the winner from District 11 (Lehigh Valley) and then the representative from of one of six districts – 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 10 – to gain a berth in the final.
District 1 (Southeastern Pa.) is staying in the eastern part of the bracket. The champion of the 16-team field will play the winner from District 3 (South Central Pa.) for the right to play for top honors in Hershey.
District 7 (Western Pa.) has advanced to the highest enrollment classification final in seven of the last eight seasons.
The bracket changes mean that St. Joe's Prep and Coatesville, both equipped with high-octane offenses fueled by quick and savvy play-makers, could be on a collision course to battle for statewide glory in Chocolatetown on Dec. 8.
Of a possible rematch with Coatesville, St. Joe's coach Gabe Infante said, "I hope we're in that position at that point of the season. There's a lot of football ahead of us."
The Hawks, who went 13-1 and fell to District 7's Pine-Richland in last year's final, has a stellar one-two rushing punch in Kolbe Burrell and Marques Mason, up-and-coming quarterback Kyle McCord, and speedy receivers Johnny Freeman, Anthony Rightley, and La Salle transfer Marvin Harrison.
The Red Raiders are similarly explosive. Matt Ortega's squad returns Ricky Ortega, the coach's son and a three-year starter at quarterback, Division I-bound tailback Aaron Young, and swift receivers Dapree Bryant, Dymere Miller, and C.J. Brown.
"We have to stay healthy and keep working hard to have the kind of success we had last year," Matt Ortega said.
Coatesville, the defending Ches-Mont League National Division champ, averaged 44.3 points while going 13-2. Its only other loss came vs. District 3's Cumberland Valley.
St. Joe's Prep also brings back four starting offensive linemen: center Anthony Cerruti (5-foot-9, 280 pounds), guards Matt McGeary (6-2, 310) and Casey Stephenson (6-2, 310), and tackle R.J. McGee (6-0, 265).
The Red Raiders are powered up front by Towson recruit Ricky Santiago (6-5, 320), fellow tackle Chris McBride (6-2, 270), and guards Ayden Geter (5-11, 250) and Dylan Nichols (6-2, 280). Nichols came over from District 3's Garden Spot.
St. Joe's Prep, ranked No. 18 in USA Today's preseason Super 25, will take on No. 9 St. Frances Academy (Md.) on Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. at the University of Maryland.
St. Frances went 13-0 last season and outscored foes by 534-61. Head coach Biff Poggi, an investment fund manager, has built the Panthers into a national powerhouse largely by spending more than $2.5 million of his own money, according to an ESPN article.
St. Frances has two former Public League players, offensive lineman Micah Mazzccua (Simon Gratz) and two-way end Michael Statham (Imhotep Charter) on its roster. Both are juniors.
Imhotep's Tykee Smith, a multipurpose standout, is scheduled to announce his college choice at 2 p.m. Thursday at the East Germantown school.