Each week during the regular season, Patriot devoted a portion of its practice time to a defensive scheme it expected to use in the playoffs against teams with spread offenses. The players never spent more than 10 minutes on the scheme, but the reminder helped keep it fresh in their minds if the opportunity came to employ it.
It was time well-spent.
Last Friday against Gar-Field in the Class 6 Region B semifinals, the fourth-seeded Pioneers (5-1) unveiled a 3-3 front that kept the top-seeded and high scoring Indians off balance all night. Designed to bring pressure from different spots, Patriot showed a look that caught Gar-Field off-guard. The Indians, which entered the game averaging 34.7 points a game, were held to a season-low point total. The result: a 13-7 victory that qualified the Pioneers for Friday’s 7 p.m. region final at 7-0 Massaponax in a first-time matchup between the two programs.
With ample evidence to choose from, Patriot head coach Sean Finnerty praised his team’s resilience in the face of some challenging circumstances that depleted their roster and almost left them out of the postseason for the first time since 2015.
After losing its regular-season finale against Battlefield 35-12, Patriot assumed its season was over despite a 4-1 record. Then five minutes after the team dispersed following Finnerty’s post-game talk, some good news. Riverbend lost to North Stafford, which opened the fourth and final playoff spot for Patriot.
Instead of putting away equipment for the year, Patriot went back to work. In preparing for Gar-Field, the Pioneers focused on its new defensive strategy with a reduced roster.
The Pioneers, who usually have 45 to 50 players available for varsity games, had only 28 for Battlefield. Patriot had the same number against Gar-Field due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols.
Patriot was so physically beat up going into the playoffs that Finnerty gave his players that Friday and Saturday off before resuming practice Monday and Tuesday in just helmets.
Patriot filled holes where needed and the players stepped up. Gabe Bigbee exemplified the Pioneers’ efforts.
Patriot prefers to keep Bigbee on offense, where he is the Pioneers’ top receiver. But Patriot was thin at safety against Gar-Field so Bigbee played the entire Gar-Field game in the secondary while also performing his receiving responsibilities.
Finnerty expects some returners back for Massaponax, but not many more in Patriot’s first regional football final since the school opened in 2011. In addition, the injuries continue to pile up after senior inside linebacker and Shepherd signee Cole Scott, a Cedar Run District defensive player of the candidate, suffered a shoulder injury against Gar-Field. Patriot was already hurting at inside linebacker after Brady McLaughlin was injured against Battlefield.
Still, Finnerty believes Patriot has a shot against the heavily favored Panthers and their triple-option offense Friday if sticks to its game plan.
On Patriot’s final defensive stand, Finnerty recalled with pride how his players stood their ground. Of the 11 players on the field, only six were starters and only two were playing in their original positions to start the season.
“It just shows what kind of kids they are,” Finnerty said. “None of that got to them.”