When Chris Gicking was heading into his senior year at Marple Newtown High School in 1995, he asked his father, long-time Conestoga football coach Harry Gicking, to spend one season with the Tigers – and his son. Harry obliged and was able to enjoy watching his son become Marple Newtown’s all-time career passing leader.
“I said, ‘You’ve been coaching against me for a couple years. Can you come over one year and help me?’” Gicking recalls.
In 2014, when Gicking returned to his alma mater to take over the program, ironically after 13 seasons assisting at Conestoga, he had only one person in mind for his defensive coordinator: his dad. As their third season with the Tigers moves deeper into the playoffs, father and son are doing big things, and Marple Newtown has become one of the most interesting stories on the local football scene.
Friday night, the Tigers visit Academy Park in the PIAA District One Class 5A semifinals. It’s arguably the biggest game in school history and offers Marple Newtown the chance to improve on its school-record 11 wins and advance deeper into the post-season than it ever has before. This season is part of a tremendous run that includes the school’s first Central League title since 1977 (the Tigers shared it with Ridley and Springfield), its first home playoff victory, and its first back-to-back playoff appearances. Understandably, Gicking is thrilled to be experiencing such success at his alma mater.
“It means everything to come back here,” he said Sunday afternoon, as he kept one eye on the Eagles-Falcons game, one on some game tape, while still managing to watch his sleeping daughter. To this day, he calls Broomall home, having settled there with his wife and kids. “I grew up here, and I wanted to get back.”
The year before Gicking took over at Marple Newtown, the program had “33 or 34 players” on the roster, he says. At the outset of the 2016 season, they had 60, despite 18 of the previous year’s starters having graduated. Gicking looks at the robust participation and huge success of the last two years as direct results of the solid Marple Junior Tigers feeder system. For him, it’s a testament to what can happen “when guys play together as kids and then go to high school together,” also serving as a direct message to any MJT players interested in heading to parochial or independent high schools.
One of the Marple Newtown players who decided to stay in the pipeline is junior quarterback Anthony Paoletti, who already has set the single-season passing record and is on pace to break Gicking’s career mark next year.
“Anthony is an unbelievable kid,” Gicking says. “He’s the kind of kid who will do anything for you. If you put him at linebacker, he’d do well. He is our hardest worker and an awesome guy. I’m happy for him.”
Paoletti had a big hand in the Tigers’ 38-37 double-overtime win over West Chester East last Friday, but it was a toss pass thrown by halfback Carmen Christiana to Cameron Mathes for a touchdown in the second overtime period – and the subsequent PAT by Reilly Fillman – that clinched the win over the Vikings. Now, it’s on to Academy Park, which is also 11-1 and the defending district champion.
“We talk every week with this group that we don’t want this to be the last Monday practice or the last Tuesday practice,” Gicking says. “We tell them we love them and that we want to keep this going.”
And so does Gicking – if only to have some more football time with his father.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: Congratulations to Malvern Prep, which dumped Springside-Chestnut Hill Academy Saturday to earn a share of the Inter-Ac title with Germantown Academy. On the first weekend of the league campaign, the Friars lost at Episcopal, on a last-second field goal. Coach Aaron Brady’s team won its next four – including a 45-15 rout of GA – to claim part of the championship.