SHARON HILL — From Darby Township to Collingdale, Sharon Hill and Folcroft, members of the Academy Park football team have been treated like local celebrities in anticipation of Friday night's District One Class AAA championship game.
The Knights are one win away from claiming the school's first District One Class AAA championship. Academy Park (9-2) takes on Glen Mills (9-3) at Ridley High School in an all-Del Val League final. The winners moves on to the state tournament to play District 12 champion Archbishop Wood, off a bye week.
The Knights are appreciative of the attention. The well-wishes and support stretch beyond the community, though. On Twitter, fans and players from Interboro, Springfield and Ridley, among other Delco schools, are openly rooting for the Knights to succeed.
It's been a unique experience for players and coaches.
"A couple of my teammates, after the Pottsgrove game, were walking down the street and they were stopped by somebody, to congratulate them on beating Pottsgrove. It was a normal stranger,' senior linebacker Osman Toure said. "So, that means a lot to us and it means that the whole town is behind us, and they're counting on us. Right now, we're making history. People are excited.'
It has been a long and arduous journey for head coach Jason Vosheski and his staff. After years of struggling to turn things around on Calcon Hook Road, the Knights are back to being one of the top football programs in Delco. All that's missing now is a District One title.
"It's surreal,' Vosheski said. "For us as a coaching staff, it's seeing nine years of going through tough times, and starting and building with the kids from six years ago, and everything improving from that point. In the community, it's something we've never had (since) I guess 1994 with the basketball team. We haven't had anything like this, in any sport. Last year was like a taste of it. You saw some of the alumni started coming back in, showing their support. Now it's exploded.'
The Knights are hoping to exact revenge on their Del Val foes. In the teams' first meeting last month, Glen Mills edged the Knights, though Vosheski saw the contest as "pretty much a draw,' except for a few big plays from both squads that resulted in touchdowns. But one of the deciding factors was Glen Mills running back Shaaheen Dow, who blasted the Knights defense to the tune of 233 yards in a 20-13 decision that catapulted the Battlin' Bulls into sole possession of first place. One week later, on the final weekend of the regular season, the Bulls clinched the league crown outright, officially unseating the Knights as Del Val champs.
For the Knights, they know what needs to be done to avoid a similar outcome.
"You have to limit their big plays. Those killed us,' defensive back Jeff DeVaughn said. "You have to limit their opportunities. When they see the hole, they hit it. They're not going to miss.'
Dow rushed for 229 yards in the Bulls' semifinal win over Henderson, and also played a key role on defense. For the Academy Park defense, he is the No. 1 target.
"I feel like last game, we gave up three big plays and those plays hurt us,' Toure said. "We found out later on that Shaaheen had only 19 carries and 23 yards in the second half. Our ability to not allow the big play is huge.'
Of course, the Knights have one of the most explosive offenses in the county, led by arguably the top running back in the state, Jerry Lanier, who has 2,030 yards and 18 touchdowns. The senior eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark and has a chance to become the county's all-time, single-season rusher, provided the Knights can advance to states. Lanier's numbers were somewhat underwhelming (by his incredibly high standards) in the Glen Mills game. He still put up 123 yards on 21 carries, but failed to find the end zone.
The Knights know they cannot add to the Bulls' takeaway tally. Glen Mills has 14 turnovers in two District One playoff games, and have scored three touchdowns on defense.
"We have to protect the ball,' said Devaughn, who doubles as a wide receiver and defensive back. "We can't try for those extra yards. If you have to go down, (we'll) go down. Don't try for those extra yards when it ain't happening.'
The Bulls also allowed 320 yards against Henderson, after giving up close to 400 in the quarterfinal round win over Springfield. So, while the Bulls have had success stripping the ball and netting interceptions, they can be moved on.
"In the last two weeks, they've been like a turnover machine. Whether or not that's them or that's the other team, or a little bit of both, they've gotten a lot of turnovers the last two weeks and that turns into points,' Vosheski said. "It's all momentum. Once one thing happens, it all snowballs.'
On the opposite side, the Knights' defense has a propensity for blowing up plays in the backfield, and stymieing teams with its speed and athleticism, but is vulnerable at times against good running teams.
"We had too many missed tackles the first time. We gotta be able to wrap and not just hit, and that way we can prevent the big plays from happening,' Toure said. "If we do that, I think we'll be good, and it's important to keep the aggressiveness up.'
The Knights were a loose bunch earlier in the week in practice, still flying high from the win over undefeated and No 1-seeded Pottsgrove last week. The Knights will be all business Friday at Phil Marion Field.
"We're just glad to be here, but we don't want to be content with where we're at,' said defensive end Khyree Thomas, who leads the Knights in sacks. "We want to keep winning, keep moving. That's the goal.'
Devaughn's message was clear.
"This is more for the school, the alumni and people who couldn't do it before us,' he said. "So, we're going to do it for them.'