South Defense Bends But Doesn't Break

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SOUDERTON – Defense, the bend-but-don’t break variety, was a specialty of the South squad in Monday night’s Montgomery County All-Star Football Game.
Consider only the final drive of the night.
The North had just marched 64 yards and - with time winding down and the ball on the South’s six-yard line - appeared poised to spoil the South’s shutout bid.
Dmitri Miller, Mark Visco, et al had other ideas.
On second-and-goal from the six, Upper Moreland’s Miller – who spent the night in the North’s backfield – tossed Perkiomen Valley quarterback Zach Zulli for a 14-yard loss. One play later, Visco came up with an interception that preserved the shutout.
“Before that play, I was like, ‘We just need to hold them for two more plays,’” the Upper Dublin linebacker said. “I was really happy to end it making that interception.”
It was that kind of night for Visco and his teammates in the South’s 24-0 shutout of a potentially-dangerous North squad.
“When you have an all-star game like this, you never expect a shutout,” said Upper Dublin coach Bret Stover, the head coach of the victorious South squad. “(Cheltenham coach) Joe Gro did a great job orchestrating our defense, and our kids made the plays.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch.”
Visco admitted he expected nothing close to a 24-point shutout.
“We expected to be blown out actually because they have so many (great) athletes, but we came out more prepared than they were, I guess,” the Upper Dublin linebacker said. “We were just able to keep stopping them, and that was really unexpected,but a great feeling too.”
The difference in the game?
“Maybe just all the hustle we had and the will to win,” Visco said. “I think we wanted it more than them. That’s why it ended up the way it did.”
A quick glance at the final stats would suggest that the South might not have even been in the game. While both teams had 12 first downs, the North held a 297-136 advantage in total yards. That was negated, in part, by the fact that the North gave a chunk of that back, thanks to its 17 penalties for 150 yards.
Most of those penalty yards – 115 of them – came in the second half.
“I don’t know what happened,” said North Penn’s Ronnie Akins, who earned MVP honors for the North with four catches for 108 yards. “We started getting penalties called on us, and everything went downhill after that.”
The South’s defense – which forced four turnovers - set the tone for this one early, forcing the North to punt after a three-and-out on its opening possession of the game. The North’s second possession lasted just three plays as Germantown Academy’s Tim Vernon came up with an interception to kill that drive.
The South capitalized when Abington’s Dom Massey, the South’s MVP, made a leaping grab of a 13-yard pass from Upper Merion quarterback Alex Phanthavong in the corner of the end zone, capping a five-play, 25-yard scoring drive.
“To be honest with you, that was a game day thing,” Phanthavong said of his connection to Massey. “During practice, I wasn’t doing so well.
“Today I knew I had to step my game up if we wanted to win.”
Another three-and-out for the North – followed by a four-yard punt - set the stage for a 43-yard scoring drive that put the South on top 14-0.
The North responded with a sustained drive of its own, marching 66 yards to the South’s 14, but that’s when the South’s defense kicked in yet again. On third-and-12, Miller came up with a sack for a 12-yard loss.
“We have extraordinary players,” Miller said. “My line helped me a lot, pushing them back and setting me up. I can’t thank them enough.”
On fourth-and-long, Upper Dublin’s Josh Mastromatto knocked a pass out of harm’s way near the goal line, and the North was stymied yet again.
“Josh was in the game as an offensive player,” Stover said of his gifted running back. “But as a need, he played safety in our prevent package. He was in there to cover Akins because he was starting to light us up right before halftime. He played a lot more defense than he was supposed to going into the game just because of his sheer ability to run.”
For good measure, the South marched down the field and tacked on three more points to go on top 17-0, thanks to a 30-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights by Cheltenham’s Jake Smith.
The half ended with Plymouth Whitemarsh’s Kyle Crowder coming up with the South’s second interception of the half.
If there was a defining drive in the game, it came on the North’s opening possession of the second half. The North needed to put points on the board, and it looked as though they were about to do just that as – sparked by a 45-yard completion from Zulli to Hatboro-Horsham’s Dave Lorenzo – they marched all the way down to the South’s three-yard line.
But on a huge fourth-and-two play, the South forced Zulli into throwing a pass into the ground, and the South took over on downs.
“That was huge,” Visco said. “Coming out of halftime, we were happy to be up 17-0, but we didn’t want to get cocky.
“They were ready to score – we were able to bend really far, but we didn’t break. I was getting kind of nervous, but I knew we could do it.”
The South tacked on yet another touchdown while the North – with some help from the officials – self-destructed with one penalty after another.
“It was a lot of fun,” Miller said. “I had a tremendous time getting to know all the players I played against during the season and getting to know the coaches.”
The key to the South’s success, according to the Upper Moreland standout, was simple.
“Just practice,” Miller said. “We all had a great time.
“We’re all good athletes, and we just meshed well.”
NOTES: Wissahickon middle linebacker Matt Johnson suffered a dislocated shoulder in the third quarter. “He was playing a heck of a middle linebacker before he got hurt,” Stover said. The loss of Johnson allowed Visco to move back inside where he was more comfortable, and he came up with the interception that preserved the shutout. “He’s more of a read-and-run guy, and he started making plays when we moved him inside,” Stover said of Visco.