Physical battle expected as Freeport hosts 1st-time foe Derry in Big East opener
It can become a slippery slope to judge someone based on reputation, but right now that’s all Derry and Freeport have to go on.
Put together in the newly formed Class 3A Big East Conference during the WPIAL’s offseason realignment, the returning WPIAL playoff qualifiers can’t exactly draw on past games against each other -- mostly because there aren’t any.
Friday’s game at Freeport Area Athletic Stadium will mark the schools’ first meeting.
And with both teams seeking another postseason appearance, that makes this quite the get-to-know-you game.
“It’s nice to play some different teams around and get some new looks,” Freeport senior QB/DB Austin Romanchak said. “Obviously, usually when you play against teams you get to know some of the kids you’re playing against for years. This is a brand new challenge for us. We’re ready to get into it.
“It’s a crazy different schedule from last year, but we’re just going to go into every game with the same mentality as last year: It’s just another game we’ve got to win.”
Derry and Freeport came into the season as two of the top contenders for the Big East championship, along with North Catholic and Elizabeth Forward. All four teams qualified for the WPIAL playoffs last season and brought back plenty of talent.
Freeport will begin the season against those other three teams, starting with a Derry program that went from doormat to contender under fifth-year coach Tim Sweeney. Winless the season before his arrival, the Trojans won 20 games and back-to-back Interstate Conference titles the past two seasons, advancing to the WPIAL semifinals in 2016. They routed rival Latrobe, 45-15, in Week Zero.
“They’re hard-nosed. They’re going to smash you in the mouth,” Freeport coach John Gaillot said. “It’s definitely going to be a street fight, physical. Whoever wins is going to be the more physical team. Honestly, looking at them, that’s what I hope we are, and that’s what people think of us when they see us.”
As it turns out, Sweeney sees plenty of good things when he looks at Freeport, the Allegheny Conference runner-up last season, which returns third-year starter Romanchak, star RB/LB Conor Selinger and several other key pieces.
“Freeport is one of the teams mentioned every year, regardless of the conference they’re in, as a contender to end up at Heinz Field,” Sweeney said. “Playing them right out of the chute at their place is going to be a really difficult task for us, and we really don’t know what to expect.”
One potential disadvantage for Derry, Sweeney said, is that while the Trojans played a Week Zero game, Freeport instead had a second scrimmage.
“One of the cons of playing a Week Zero game, and Freeport didn’t, is you don’t want to tip your hand too much in scrimmages,” he said. “We don’t really know what to expect from Freeport going in there. They’ve seen a lot of what we do. I’m sure they have tape on us from last year, and they’ve probably seen a lot of similar things to what we did last year and what we did Friday night.”
The Week Zero sword cuts both ways, however, as Freeport will be playing its first full-length game of the season after scrimmaging Apollo-Ridge and Riverside.
“You play a game, you know where your body’s at,” Gaillot said. “Now going in and not having a game zero, my question is what are they going to be like in quarter three and four?”
That’s especially the case when facing a physical team like Derry, which got two rushing touchdowns apiece from Dom DeLuca and Onreey Stewart against Latrobe.
But although unfamiliar with Derry, Freeport is more than used to physical football after playing in the the similarly styled Allegheny Conference. The Yellowjackets’ run offense is built around dual-threat Romanchak and the pounding style of Selinger. The duo combined for more than 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns last season.
“Their quarterback is maybe the best dual-threat quarterback in Triple-A, and he poses a tough task for any defense this entire season,” Sweeney said. “They’re well-coached, and they’re hungry. It’s going to be an awfully tough task for us on Friday.
“If we go up there and do the things that we coach in practice and that we try to pay attention to, and they go up there and execute the game plan with effort, I’ll be happy win or lose.”
The winner Friday will get an early leg up in what figures to be a difficult battle for the playoffs, especially with so much familiarizing left to be done.
“We have to play strong, hard, physical football and make sure we match their physicality and excel on top of it,” Romanchak said. “We’ve got to execute and be physical.”