As the blowout victories continued to mount in the first month of the season, so too did the confidence and expectations of Archbishop Ryan football supporters.
And how could they not? The Raiders won their first four non-league games — by 17, 35, 53 and 44 points, respectively — and it seemed a real possibility that Ryan could have its first 5-0 start to a season since 1988, even with annual AAAA state champion threat La Salle standing in the team’s way.
But if Ryan’s hot start was a balloon soaring toward the football heavens, the Explorers played the role of the pin prick that sent the Raiders hurtling back down to Earth. While Frank McArdle’s group still sure has what it takes to have a very special season, Saturday’s 28-14 loss to the surgical Explorers indicated that Ryan isn’t quite there … yet.
“I’ll put it to you real simple,” said McArdle, in his fifth season as Ryan’s head coach. “We didn’t play physical or smart. We blew coverages, dropped two touchdown passes and just weren’t focused.”
The 0-1 start in the brutally tough Catholic League AAAA division wasn’t as much demoralizing as it was disappointing. The Raiders have plenty of season left, and the fact that the offensive and defensive mental deficiencies reared their heads now shows the team what it must clean up against Roman, Judge and St. Joseph’s Prep in the coming weeks.
No, the sky isn’t falling; it’s just a bit cloudier than it has been in the past month when the Raiders were dispatching their opponents by an average of more than 37 points per game. The biggest difference, perhaps, is that for the first time in several seasons, Ryan legitimately felt that it had a shot to beat La Salle going in, which would explain why the disappointment was so palpable.
“In those other games we made some mistakes against teams we were better than, and we covered them up with talent,” McArdle said. “Against La Salle, we played someone just as good as us and made similar mistakes that hurt us. We didn’t regress … we just showed we can’t make any mental mistakes.”
Tailback Samir Bullock, who ran roughshod over opponents in the first four games (including 345- and 295-yard outputs), was limited to just 57 yards on 18 carries, the first time he’s been held under 100 yards this season. Quarterback Mark Ostaszewski, who exited briefly in the second half with an ankle injury, went just 4-for-16. Ryan, unable to stop La Salle’s first down machine from churning, trailed 21-0 at halftime.
However, there were bright spots. Freshman Matt Romano (brother of senior WR/DB Bobby) relieved Ostaszewski late in the third quarter and played with the poise of a senior. He completed his first pass, a 13-yard dart to senior Connor Golden, scrambled 15 yards for a first down and then lofted a rainbow pass into the end zone that a leaping Golden somehow hauled in in heavy traffic from 25 yards out.
Speaking of Golden, he was spectacular. The wide receiver/free safety combo, who is in the top 10 percent of his senior class, hauled in five catches for 141 yards and both Raider scores, the other being a 45-yard laser from Ostaszewski that briefly cut the deficit to 21-7; Golden also added his team-leading third interception on defense.
“La Salle is very good, there’s no arguing that,” Golden said. “We just left a few plays out there on the field and we didn’t score in the red zone. We’ve lost before, so we know not to dwell on it. Just got to dust it off our shoulders and focus on this weekend, because if we lose that (against Roman Catholic, Saturday, 7 p.m., at Northeast), then we’re in a bit of a hole.”
As for his monster game on both sides of the ball against arguably the best team in the city?
“You have to play like you’re the best player on the field,” Golden said. “You know La Salle is great, so there’s nothing you can do about that. I just try to go out there and tell myself, ‘Nobody is better than you, so go out and give it everything you’ve got.’ ”
Perhaps the biggest silver lining for Ryan is that had it played even just a little bit better against La Salle, which has advanced at least as far as the AAAA state semifinals the last four seasons (winning a state title in 2009), then the Raiders very well could have won. Ryan got inside La Salle’s 10-yard line twice and came away empty-handed both times; they were definitely knocking on the door, only to find out that on this day, nobody was home.
“La Salle, they get first downs and they make things happen,” McArdle said. “They executed their calls. We didn’t. It’s real simple. We need to look in the mirror and get back to what we do well. There’s no magic pill … we just made too many mistakes.”
And despite hugely challenging contests at Roman and Judge in the next two weeks, McArdle is not letting one loss eliminate all the positivity that has emanated from the program for most of the month of September.
“We’re going to bounce back,” he said. “We’ve been in way worse situations, and I couldn’t be more confident that we’ll put it together. Considering where this program has come from, this is nothing. We played the best program in the state of Pennsylvania and we didn’t play well. I have a ton of respect for La Salle, so don’t take it the wrong way, but it’s not like we played great and lost by two scores.
“We need to fix what we have to fix, and when we do we’ll have a really good year. I’m calling it now: this will not affect us going forward. We’ll be OK, and we will bounce back.”
Golden concurred with his head coach.
“We have to listen to our coaches, because they know what they’re talking about,” he said. “Physically, we’re beating up on people, so we just have to fix the mental errors. It doesn’t feel good to lose, so for us it’s about going out there and trying to earn some respect. We want people to know we’re the real deal and trying to do big things.”
And what big things would those be, Connor?
“We want to win the Catholic League, and we know anything can happen in the playoffs,” the three-year player said. “For a lot of us seniors, it all started sophomore year. A lot of us have been starting since then, so we view ourselves as the group that got better and helped turn this thing around. In the past, playing football here was more like a chore. Now, it’s a privilege, and I’m loving every second of it.” ••