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Rick O'Brien: La Salle linebacker wants to go out on top

Despite his rock-solid contributions during La Salle's run to the PIAA Class AAAA state championship game, Ryan Saraceni said he would give up playing football after tomorrow night's final against State College.

Despite his rock-solid contributions during La Salle's run to the PIAA Class AAAA state championship game, Ryan Saraceni said he would give up playing football after tomorrow night's final against State College.

And it's not because his best opportunity for scholarship money lies in his lacrosse abilities.

"No matter where I went to play football, I know I couldn't reproduce the chemistry we have on this team," the 18-year-old said. "This is how I want to remember my career."

Saraceni, a senior inside linebacker, and the Explorers will vie for statewide glory at Hersheypark Stadium. If they can knock off the Little Lions, they will celebrate the holidays as the first District 12 and Catholic League football squad to capture a state title.

Yes, it is a chance to make history.

"All season long, we've been pointing toward this," Saraceni said. "Well, actually, even before then. We started thinking about this since we lost to George Washington in last year's district championship game."

Saraceni, of Lansdale, is already the owner of one state championship medal. And he's no stranger to Chocolate Town.

In June, with the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder serving as a reserve midfielder, the Explorers took home gold in lacrosse with a 7-3 win over Conestoga on the same field where La Salle and State College will slug it out.

"It was great, especially for all the seniors on that team, but there's nothing like a football championship," Saraceni said.

Saraceni captains the Explorers along with strong-armed senior quarterback Drew Loughery, who has passed for 4,920 yards and 48 touchdowns over the last two seasons. The captains were selected by their teammates after training camp.

"I didn't really expect it," Saraceni said. "Drew was pretty much a shoo-in, especially after being one of the captains of last year's team. I think the guys like my style of play and how I lead. I was definitely honored."

For his role in helping La Salle to its third Catholic League championship in four seasons, the hard-nosed performer was a coaches' first-team all-league pick.

"He's one of the best leaders I've ever been around in high school football," said La Salle's fourth-year boss, Drew Gordon, adding that Saraceni and Loughery "have really taken over the team."

In last Saturday's state semifinal against Ridley, the District 1 champion, Saraceni registered five tackles, four of them solo, as the Explorers rolled to a 35-7 victory at Northeast High.

Midway through the fourth quarter, his tackle of wideout Norm Donkin forced a fumble that was recovered by fellow linebacker Anthony Cognetti and returned 36 yards.

Among La Salle's linebackers, Saraceni and Cognetti are positioned inside and Shane Brady and Sam Feleccia outside. Against Ridley, the four combined for 13 tackles, including nine solo stops and a half-sack, while limiting the Green Raiders to a late second-quarter score.

"We each have our own roles, and we can really count on each other," Saraceni said. "I'm the blow-up-the-blocks guy."

Regarding the La Salle defense, which has yielded just 12.3 points per game, Saraceni said: "We might not be the fastest bunch around, but we usually find a way to outhit a team or out-position a team."

The other regulars on the defensive side of the ball are ends Steve Sinnott and Cameron Cappo, tackles Steve Szostak and Ryan Geiger, cornerbacks Vinny Migliarese and Jamal Abdur-Rahman, and safety Kevin Forster.

Rotating linemen include Matt DiGiacomo, Joseph Naji, and Kieran Trainer. Mark DiFrangia, who made a big special-teams hit against Ridley, fills in at linebacker. And Patrick Resch, Ryan Otis, and Bill Thomas are mixed into the secondary as needed.

Saraceni, a second-year starter, had high praise for La Salle's longtime defensive coordinator, John Steinmetz. "I think he's a steal," Saraceni said. "If the NFL caught sight of him, he'd be out of here."

Saraceni, who could wind up playing lacrosse at St. Joseph's University or the University of Scranton, receives support from his parents, Rob and Mimi; his brother, Rob, a cornerback for the Explorers' 2006 Catholic League championship team; and his sister, Kirsten.

But who is arguably Ryan Saraceni's most vocal supporter? That's his grandfather, Bob. "He lives and dies on La Salle football," Ryan said.