A St. Mark’s-Salesianum football game is always special. But a few outside circumstances have combined to make this year’s meeting even more so.
Only six teams make the DIAA Division I football playoffs. Both St. Mark’s and Sallies are sitting at 4-2, and William Penn, Middletown, Newark, Concord, Cape Henlopen and Sussex Tech all have a chance to finish the season at 8-2 or better.
Both teams will receive some bonus points for playing tough schedules, but it’s safe to say that after the Spartans and Sals meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Baynard Stadium, the winner will be feeling better about its playoff chances.
“It’s so huge on many levels for us, and I’m sure for them,” St. Mark’s coach John Wilson said. “Let’s use that term: It’s playoff time. It’s a playoff game. That’s what it is. … It’s just the way the schedule works for us this year.”
Salesianum coach Bill DiNardo agreed.
“This is a must-win game for both teams,” DiNardo said. “John knows that, I know that. With Flight A and the Henlopen North teams, how it’s coming together right now, if either St. Mark’s or we go 7-3, it’s going to be really difficult to make the tournament.”
So that will ratchet up the pressure just a little more in a game that is always played in front of a packed house, a game that always creates lifelong memories for everyone involved.
“This is the biggest game in the state,” DiNardo said. “This is the most intense rivalry. There are some great rivalries out there, and I know we are included in a couple. But there is nothing that compares to this game.
“This is a week of electric enthusiasm in both schools, among alumni, everything. It’s something that hits both communities full tilt.”
Both No. 3 St. Mark’s and No. 2 Salesianum lost to No. 1 William Penn in the first two weeks of the season, and both lost recently to a dominant out-of-state opponent. Montclair (New Jersey) ran past the Spartans 64-35 last week, and Poly Prep Country Day of Brooklyn, New York, pulled away from the Sals 42-21 two weeks ago.
But St. Mark’s can point to a bright spot against Montclair. Quarterback Matt Williams returned from a knee injury to play for the first time this season and completed 20 of 32 passes for 345 yards and five touchdowns. So the Spartans may pass a little more, but they also expect more of a pass rush.
“They weren’t really blitzing [Williams]. They were so concerned about covering,” Wilson said of Montclair. “Once we saw a four-man rush, which wasn’t much pressure, he was able to scan things and pick them apart. I don’t think Sallies is going to be that way.”
Wilson cited defensive back Colby Reeder, linebacker Connor Freeborn and lineman Kyle Cathers as Sallies defenders able to tilt a game on any play.
“It comes down to five or six plays all the time,” Wilson said. “You don’t know when they’re going to be, so on each play you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity you have. Making that interception when you have a chance, or making that stop on third down when you have a chance to kill a drive, or picking up a first down when it’s necessary.”
DiNardo said Sallies won’t be surprised to see both Williams and receiver Connor Eastep – who played quarterback for St. Mark’s in the first five games – under center. The Sals’s goal: be intense, but not too intense.
“You don’t want to be too hyped up, too tense,” DiNardo said. “There are going to be high and lows in this game. The kids have to prepare for that.”
Easier said than done.
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ