When Archbishop Ryan head football coach Frank McArdle took over the reigns at his alma mater four seasons ago, he set out to instill two important qualities in his players — hard work and dedication.
He knew that rebuilding a successful program in the powerful Catholic League AAAA Gold Division was not going to happen overnight — it would be impossible for any team that recently suffered through a 20-game league losing streak and a winless 2008 season. For the team to become competitive again, McArdle was going to have to build from the ground up by developing the young players in the program and getting them to buy into his brand of football.
Friday night at Bensalem High School, the young Raiders took a big step into advancing their program by methodically dismantling the host Owls of the Suburban One League’s National Conference, 41-13.
Led mostly by skilled position underclassmen, Ryan fought through some early first-half adversity and went into intermission up 7-3 thanks to a perfectly executed screen pass from quarterback Brian Kennedy (a Father Judge transfer) to running back Jim Mansfield, who scampered 10 yards for the score. However, the Raiders failed to capitalize later in the half when an illegal block in the back negated a fumble return for a touchdown, which did not sit well with McArdle.
“I told the guys that we had to stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” McArdle said of his halftime message to his team. “We were doing some knucklehead things like taking stupid penalties. I knew once we cleared that up, we would be in good shape.”
The team took McArdle’s words to heart and cut out the ‘knucklehead’ play immediately, as the second half kickoff was returned 80 yards for a touchdown by junior Bobby Romano. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound Romano followed a perfectly formed wedge and never broke stride.
It was the first of Romano’s three impact plays for the Raiders. Later in the third quarter, Romano caught a precisely thrown 25-yard sideline fade down to the 5-yard line from change-of-pace QB Mark Ostaszewski, also a junior. Three plays later, Ostaszewski scored on a QB keeper from a yard out. On Bensalem’s ensuing offensive possession, Romano made a highlight reel interception of a Kevin Hopkins pass to take the wind out of Bensalem’s sails. Four plays later, the Raiders put the game away on a 50 yard TD run by Joe Dutkiewicz.
“Bobby Romano was huge for us,” McArdle said. “He knows how to play football and he is a winner. Bobby is a two-way standout who is one of our best tacklers on defense. On offense, he could run the ball for us if we asked him.”
The Ryan defense performed well in the face of a wide-open spread attack employed by Bensalem. In addition to Romano’s interception, sophomore Travon Williams intercepted a pass in the flat and took the ball 35-yards untouched into the end zone.
McArdle was pleased with the defensive effort considering the unit was playing under some adversity.
“We lost two starters on the defensive side of the ball to injury,” the coach noted. “Two kids jumped in and did a great job. We started ten underclassmen.”
While the underclassmen seized the opportunity and subsequent glory, the young and savvy head coach was quick to point out after the game the often-overlooked work in the trenches.
“We have a lot of underclassmen who contribute, but the senior leadership provided by guys like (offensive/defensive lineman) Brian Robbins is huge,” McArdle said. “Brian was voted a co-captain by his teammates. He organized the guys in their workouts during the offseason. He has improved so much since his sophomore year and he is such a tough kid.”
Robbins epitomizes the kind of player that the program needs to develop if Ryan is to climb back into Catholic League contention. In just his third year of organized football, Robbins is already a two-year starter. This season, he added defensive line duties to his resume. When asked about his two-way play, Robbins admitted that playing both sides of the ball is tiring.
“I’m getting used to the different techniques coming off of blocks, but I can handle it,” he said.
The Millbrook native did not follow the traditional football path set by many of his teammates and neighbors. Growing up only a couple of blocks from the Calvary Athletic Association football fields, Robbins never got involved in organized football.
“My mom wasn’t a fan of me playing football, so I had to convince her that I would be OK,” he said.
His parents, Kathy and Jack, are now his most ardent supporters. Robbins has made the most of his chance to play. The 6-foot, 245-poud Robbins is receiving collegiate interest from the likes of Shippensburg, Lock Haven and Kutztown. For now, however, he is focusing on the tough AAAA schedule ahead, which will include Father Judge, La Salle, St. Joseph’s Prep and Roman Catholic, all quality teams this season.
In addition to Robbins, the senior leadership up front on the line of scrimmage includes Ed Bier, Joe Ruskowski and Bill Dykan. All four play on both sides of the ball and have a similar goal of bringing a Catholic League championship to Ryan. The four have put in years of hard work and dedication to making themselves, and the team as a whole, better. The win total hasn’t matched their level of commitment just yet; however, they are optimistic that they can help turn the program around for good, as they seem to be well on their way to doing so.