By John Knebels
It might be the beginning of basketball season, but there are two Catholic League football teams still competing with the same high-stakes mission, albeit in different classes.
This weekend, St. Joseph’s Prep and Archbishop Wood will participate in the PIAA state semifinals in hopes of receiving an invitation to play in Hershey the following weekend.
The Prep advanced to the Class 6A state semis by belting Nazareth, 45-24, November 22 in Bethlehem. Simultaneously at Pennridge High School, Wood overwhelmed Southern Lehigh, 41-7.
Running Game, Special Teams Lift Hawks
Competing a second straight week playing without two-time Catholic League Most Valuable Player junior quarterback Kyle McCord, the Prep again turned to junior Malik Cooper as its signal caller.
Although his numbers didn’t match the usual production of McCord, Cooper contributed an efficient performance. He completed eight of 11 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 51 yards on four carries.
“Malik is a great player to step in and run the show,” said senior lineman Anthony Leneghan, one of the Prep’s top contributors on defense. “There’s nobody else in the country I would want to step up into that role. He did play quarterback freshman and sophomore year, but I do see him getting back into his groove at quarterback.
“He is so versatile as a runner and thrower, it’s tough to try and stop the offense when he’s in there. Our defense trusts and loves the offense and know they will do their job.”
During their nine-game winning streak, the Hawks (10-2) have scored a minimum of 42 points and averaged 48.
In the victory over Nazareth, the Prep’s special teams stepped up in the form of Sahmir Hagans. The junior returned two punts for touchdowns, giving him 10 total TDs for the season (six receptions, two kickoff returns, two punt returns).
“My two big returns were all credited to my team,” said Hagans. “My teammates blocked and did their job perfectly and made it easy for me to score. I feel as if my two returns helped us keep the momentum and gave the team more energy to keep pushing in such an important game.
“It’s definitely exciting when returning a kick for a score. Knowing that I have my brothers in front of me and seeing more of us than them, it’s definitely exciting.”
Following his 217-yard performance in the District 12 championship win against Northeast, senior Kolbe Burrell amassed 109 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 14 for the year. Junior receiver Marvin Harrison added his 13th TD.
On November 30 at 1 PM, the Hawks will face Central Catholic High School at Altoona High School. The Prep’s opponent is 12-1 overall and winners of 10 straight. They are ranked 68th in the country, compared to 44 for the Hawks, who have won four of the past six state titles.
Underclassmen Power Wood to Lopsided Victory
With a bevy of juniors leading the way, Archbishop Wood had no problems with Southern Lehigh. The Vikings’ fifth straight win was highlighted by junior Kaelin Costello’s 129 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, giving him four in two games and 10 for the season.
Junior Cardel Pigford’s 80 yards on 12 rushes and 12th TD of the season and junior Shane Collier’s first two touchdowns of his career also helped the offense, as did junior QB Max Keller (5 of 8, for 100 yards and a touchdown throw to sophomore Andrew McHugh). The Vikings’ defense held Southern Lehigh’s vaunted running game to just 148 yards on 37 tries.
“I think we are playing our best football right now,” said senior running back/defensive back Ryan DiVergilis. “We’re taking every game like it could be our last one together, and I think that has motivated us to play well.
“I think in playoff games or rivalry type, there definitely is more of a sense of urgency, but I think we do a good job as a team just playing the game like it’s any other game. You can get too high or too low in games. We just try to keep an even keel, which helps a lot during those playoff games.”
The Vikings built a 21-0 halftime lead and added two touchdowns in the third and one in the fourth.
“We just knew that we couldn’t let them get any momentum, because you never know what could happen if you let a good team hang around in a game,” said DiVergilis. “It was good for us to play a complete game against a good opponent and come away with a win.”
Junior wide receiver/defensive back Ryan Woertz said the Vikings’ chief pre-game concern was “mental mistakes on each side of the ball that we can easily fix. I think it’s safe to say that we’re playing great right now, but we can approve on some stuff.”
Wood faces Gateway High School 1 PM on November 29 at Altoona High School. Gateway, which lost to Wood in the 2017 state final, is 12-2 and has won six straight. The Vikings have captured five of the past eight state titles.
“I still think we haven’t reached full potential,” said junior defensive end Rob Jackson. “We have way too much talent on the team, and I think we are getting better everyday. The more we play together, the more we learn how to be a team and get into a good dynamic.”