Sometimes it’s easy to see Abdul-Sabur Stewart’s impact on the Coatesville High football team.
Sometimes the slick and speedy senior rises up and makes a play — the punt return that set up the go-ahead score against Downingtown West, the touchdown catch on the final snap of the first half against Downingtown East.
Sometimes the Red Raiders' leader makes his presence known in subtler, if louder, ways — with chatter on the practice field, a call-to-arms in the moments before kickoff, a rallying cry after another victory.
“How do I look?” Stewart asked teammates who gathered around him after Friday night’s 20-14 victory over Downingtown East.
Stewart looked happy, and more than a little proud that his team has defied expectations that 2020 would be something of a rebuilding year for one of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s most accomplished programs.
“It feels amazing to prove everybody wrong,” Stewart said. “Everybody thought, ‘We’re too young. The seniors are no good. We lost Pre. We lost Ricky. We lost all these guys.’”
Stewart was referring to all-purpose player Dapree Bryant and quarterback Ricky Ortega, who were front-and-center during a remarkable four-year run that included 47 victories, three appearances in the District 1 Class 6A title game and two district crowns.
With Bryant and Ortega at Villanova, and without several other top seniors from last season, conventional wisdom held that Coatesville would settle back toward the middle of the pack.
Stewart wouldn’t have it, and neither would Coatesville coach Matt Ortega, Ricky’s father, as well as a dynamic group of reinforcements led by sophomore quarterback Harrison Susi.
With victories over Avon Grove and both Downingtowns, Coatesville (3-0) has clinched first place in the Ches-Mont League National Division again in this coronavirus-shortened season. With a win Friday night vs. Kennett, the Red Raiders likely will clinch one of four berths in the District 1 Class 6A tournament.
“With a short season, we were a little worried because we felt like this team would grow throughout the year,” Matt Ortega said. “But man, we’ve come out and played some pretty dang-gone good football.”
Coatesville is No. 6 in The Inquirer’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Top 10 thanks in part to the development of younger players such as Susi, an athletic left-hander, as well as junior defenders Chayse Scott, Nolan O’Hara and Lebron Bessick, among others.
But Ortega said most of the credit goes to his seniors such as Stewart and offensive lineman Jake Walton, holdovers from glory days of the past who have refused to accept a slacking of the program’s standards.
“Hats off to him and the seniors,” Ortega said of Stewart. “I was a little worried because they have so much youth behind them. I was thinking that maybe they would be worried, but even when we’ve struggled at times, they had faith in our young quarterback, in some of our other younger guys.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Stewart led the way in the win over Downingtown East, with 11 catches for 102 yards, including that leaping grab of a touchdown in double-team traffic on the final play of the first half.
Ortega said Stewart’s influence stretches far beyond the stat sheet.
“He’s one of those guys who is the starting point of our culture and the tradition of our program,” Ortega said. "He got a lot of game time in these big games the last couple of years.
"He’s that way in practice, very vocal. The kids believe in him because they know he’s been there, he’s done that and he’s been through all these grinds and games.”
Stewart said the outside expectation that Coatesville would be in a rebuilding mode this season has been a motivating factor for himself and other seniors.
“We see all these things on Twitter, MaxPreps,” Stewart said. “We’re like, ‘Y’all think we’re not going to be good? We’re going to go in that weight room, put our work in, leave our sweat on the field and make the game look easy.’ ”