St. John’s-Gonzaga matchup a WCAC playoff preview; CAFC doles out awards; MAC title race heats up


James Orfini (14) is part of a Gonzaga quarterback duo that has stepped up in the absence of starter Nick Johns. The Eagles are focused on establishing a balanced attack Saturday against St. John’s. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
October 31, 2013

When Will Ulmer receives his Under Armour All-America jersey in a Friday ceremony, it will mark the celebration of a moment the St. John’s senior quarterback had hoped to accomplish for some time. But as the camera flashbulbs go off and his classmates cheer him on, Ulmer’s mind will likely wander to Saturday, when an even bigger occasion is set to take place.

For the 88th time in the modern era, St. John’s and No. 17 Gonzaga will face off in their storied football rivalry in a 3 p.m. contest at Blair, where more than 4,000 fans are expected to attend.

“Getting the (Under Armour) jersey is great and a real blessing, but that’s actually not even my main focus for this weekend,” Ulmer said. “This rivalry goes way back, and it’s in my blood now. We’ve got to beat those guys at Gonzaga. It’s a must.”

Though both teams have already clinched a spot in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference playoffs, the game will serve as a primer for their next matchup, which will take place on Nov. 10 in the semifinals at Maryland’s Byrd Stadium. But don’t expect that to hinder the competitive balance of Saturday’s game.

“We go into every game with the same mentality, and with this rivalry being so huge, we’re just that much more motivated,” Gonzaga wide receiver Jabari Greenwood said. “We want to beat them both times.”

The quarterback play of both teams could dictate the game’s outcome. With Gonzaga starter Nick Johns still out with a collarbone injury, the Cadets are likely to bring a heavy pass rush so that backup quarterbacks Matt Mulligan and James Orfini will have little time to find Greenwood in the open field. Running back duo Reggie Corbin and Robbie Walker, who have combined for more than 1,500 yards, will look to take some of that pressure off their quarterbacks.

On the other side, Ulmer’s dual-threat ability keeps defenses guessing each time he drops back into the pocket. The shifty senior leads the Cadets with 776 rushing yards on 113 carries, an average of nearly seven yards per rush.

Gonzaga has won three of the last four meetings between these two teams, with each game being decided by a touchdown or less. This small margin for error isn’t lost on either squad in a contest marked by high stakes and high energy.

“Every time I get the ball, I’m looking to make a big play,” Ulmer said. “I use the extra attention as motivation, but really, if you execute and do what you’re supposed to do, the game and good things will come to you. We’re hyped up for this game, but at the end of the day, winning the game is about nothing more than execution.”

Around the area

The Capital Area Football Conference announced its postseason awards Wednesday ahead of the start of its playoffs, which begin Friday. Riverdale Baptist’s Bob Shields was named coach of the year for leading his Crusaders to an undefeated regular season (9-0). His linebacker, Reginald Hills, was honored as the eight-team conference’s defensive player of the year.

Avalon’s senior running back Isaac Boyd was the conference’s no-brainer offensive player of the year, an award he locked up with a stunning performance in last week’s 60-14 win over KIPP, a game in which he rushed for 402 yards on 10 carries — a school record — and six touchdowns. . . .

A tight Mid-Atlantic Conference picture could get even tighter this weekend when Sidwell Friends (5-2, 2-1) hosts Flint Hill (5-3, 3-0). With a Quakers’ win, they, the Huskies, and the Potomac School (6-2, 3-1) would all have 3-1 conference records and share the title in the four-team league.

If the Quakers are to pull what would by most accounts be an upset over a Flint Hill team that plays the toughest non-conference schedule of any MAC team and also fields the largest roster, they'll likely rely on sophomore quarterback Ted Hefter, who’s thrown for 1,388 yards and 19 touchdowns. Defensive end-turned-fullback Miles Brown, who scored the game-winning touchdown against St. James last week while also leading the Quakers in tackles, will also be key to Sidwell’s MAC title hopes. . . .

For independent private schools in Virginia, the top four teams in each division make the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs and compete for the state’s independent school title. Heading into this weekend, the Potomac School is currently the only area team in line for one of those playoff spots, in good position in the Division II poll heading into the season’s final week. Given that no team outside that division’s top three owns a winning record, the Panthers will find themselves in those playoffs regardless of their outcome in this weekend’s regular season finale at Randolph-Macon Academy.

John Paul the Great (7-2) is the only other area school with a good chance to reach the playoffs, currently just outside the Division I top four. The Wolves will finish their regular season against Bishop Ireton Saturday, a team that surprised the Potomac School in a 20-17 win last week.

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