By: John Knebels
Photos: Mike Nance
AMBLER, PA – If this was to be their last high school football game, La Salle High School seniors made it memorable.
And then some.
Behind a defense that dominated from start to finish and an offense that took full control in the fourth quarter, La Salle blanked Archbishop Wood, 27-0, on a summer-like, 72-degree afternoon November 7 at Wissahickon High School.
Because they will not compete in the postseason barring an unforeseen malady, the Explorers’ coronavirus-shortened calendar contains no future contests. That is obviously subject to change.
“We’ve played this team a bunch of times, and the seniors haven’t beaten them,” said La Salle senior quarterback Gavin Daly, referring to Wood’s five-game winning streak versus the Explorers. “This was a huge game on our schedule.”
With Wood (2-2) taking away the passing game and forcing him to move the Explorers on the ground, Daly obliged. Daly scored three touchdowns and rushed for 115 yards on 10 carries – both career highs.
After a 48-yard TD bolt early in the second quarter gave La Salle (6-1) a 7-0 lead, Daly scored on consecutive runs from 16 and 18 yards away in the fourth quarter to put the contest out of reach.
“When Gavin scored his second touchdown,” said senior receiver Justin Machita, who caught two of Daly’s completions for 12 yards, referring to when he knew the win was secured. “We had been slow for the past couple of drives, and he really picked us up right there using his legs.”
Despite a few occasions of decent field position, the Vikings were unable to find the end zone. They finished with only six first downs and 102 total yards of offense.
“The defense did a great job today,” said Machita. “It was a long time awaiting to win this game, and it was really special that they got to pitch a shutout. It was awesome.”
The defensive highlight occurred with 3:16 remaining in regulation when senior Paul Jennings scooped up a fumble at the two-yard line and rumbled home for the game’s final tally.
Jennings deflected most of the glory to his teammates.
“I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, with everybody else doing their jobs,” said Jennings. “I’m thankful for all the guys who set me up to get into the end zone. Great memories.”
Senior defensive end Tim Barrett was thrilled for his teammate.
“It was just awesome,” said Barrett. “We’ve been waiting for one all year, so it was great.
“It was a fitting moment for (Jennings) to get into the end zone. It was great to see. Nothing like when I saw that joy on his face as he was crossing the plane. It was pretty awesome.”
Archbishop Wood senior defensive back AJ Minners played his first game since injuring his hamstring and produced 46 yards on 17 carries.
Although the scoreboard might have said “7-0” after three quarters, Minners admitted that he and his teammates – several of whom played both ways – were fatigued.
“The defense stayed out there the whole time, but we fought to the end,” said Minners. “That was all we could do.”
Previously unable to solve the Vikings, La Salle’s upperclassmen had become a bit disillusioned over the years. Because Wood moved from Class 5A to Class 6A and would still be on the docket despite no official Catholic League play, the Explorers had their calendar circled months ago.
Though not a championship, the triumph was obviously special.
“It’s been up and down all year,” said Daly. “In the end, we had a great season. One loss. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
Unfortunately, that loss was to St. Joseph’s Prep, which will represent the PIAA Class 6A District 12 in the state semifinals scheduled for the weekend of November 20-21. Of course, losing to the Hawks – arguably one of the best teams in Pennsylvania, let alone Catholic League, history – is noting to be ashamed about.
For the Explorers, however, it is disappointing because they might actually be the second best team in the state but won’t have a chance to prove it.
“We kinda talk about that a lot,” said Jennings. “If we didn’t have to face them and how far we would go. Earlier in the season, we beat a couple of state playoff teams currently. It is what it is. You can’t think about that stuff too much, because it gets you nowhere.”
Several La Salle players were asked to assess a season like no other, and hopefully, one that will ever need to be repeated with such indescribably ridiculous challenges, none more grueling than dealing with the death of senior teammate Isaiah Turner on September 4.
“We are grateful to have the opportunity to get every game that we get to play, and the success we have had, we are very fortunate to have that as well,” said Machita. “Overall, we are just grateful.”
“The way we battled through adversity,” he said. “Such a special group to do what we did under the circumstances. I’m really proud of us and thankful for that.”
In the end, though, La Salle will have at least some solace for having performed so well for its fallen classmate.
“Without a doubt,” said Machita. “Isaiah, his memory, playing for him, playing for his family, and keeping them in our thoughts and prayers.
“Remembering his legacy.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels)