By: Rich Flanagan
Photos: Geanine Jamison
PHILADELPHIA - When Mike Watkins took over in 2016, he had already been presented with a template for how to, not only coach, but also lead. After two years as defensive coordinator for Bishop McDevitt, he took over for his mentor, Pat Manzi, who coached Watkins ‘99 and all of his brothers during their time on the Royal Lancers football team.
Manzi won a school-record 189 games in 33 seasons and Watkins gained a wealth of experience from the tutelage of his former coach.
“A lot of things he brought to the table I use today in the way we run our program but I have my little spin on it, too,” Watkins said. “It’s been successful and the biggest thing is our guys are buying into the program, not just football. Operating a football program is 12 months a year and the kids have bought into that with community service, school, weight and speed training, everything. Our slogan is ‘Brick by Brick’ so we’re building it slowly and through development of our young guys.”
When talking about how a program is established, built and ultimately prepared to excel, Watkins has the blueprint in place as he will lead his Royal Lancers (4-1) into the PIAA Class 2A semifinals against Southern Columbia, the three-time defending champion, on Saturday at Selinsgrove Area High School at 1:00 p.m. It’s the first time in school history Bishop McDevitt’s football program has been in the state semifinals and it comes only four years after it finished 2-7 overall in Watkins’ first season at the helm.
The buildup to the semifinals comes on the heels of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s announcement Wednesday that Bishop McDevitt, along with John W. Hallahan, will be closing at the end of the academic year.
Bishop McDevitt's "Brick by Brick" mentality has propelled the Lancers to the PIAA 2A semifinals on Saturday vs. Southern Columbia - PSD Photo by Angelise Stuhl
There’s an ominous feeling surrounding the team following the news but Watkins has the Royal Lancers focused on one thing: going out on top with the school’s first state crown in its final run.
“All year we’ve talked about blocking out the noise,” Watkins said. “Rumor this, rumor that. Right now, it’s been about playing for each other, playing for the guy next to you and playing for the guy you’ve been to battle with all year through the ups and downs. Continue to play for each other and leave your legacy. How do you want to be remembered as the last football program to go through the school?”
Watkins enacted the “Brick by Brick” mantra after learning it under Manzi. He was a four-year player and was named a Second Team All-Catholic and Third Team All-City selection in 1998 as a defensive back. He was also a member of the 1999 Philadelphia Catholic League Blue Division Royal Lancers title team. His older brother, Pat, was a two-time All-Catholic selection at linebacker and played at La Salle University (the program disbanded in 2007). Another brother, Brian, was a Second Team All-Catholic selection in 1998 with Mike. Donny Watkins Jr., a younger brother, made Blue Division First Team All-Catholic at linebacker in 1999 before going on to play at Penn State.
Despite all of the success that Watkins and his brothers had, that may pale in comparison to the career his father, Donnie Watkins Sr., put together.
Donnie Sr. played at Widener University with College Football Hall-of-Famer Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and Joe Fields. Donnie played four years for the Pride and finished his career with the third-most carries in program history (412), one ahead of Johnson.
Johnson was selected in the 15th round of the 1974 NFL Draft and became one of the most electric return specialists in league history. He played 14 seasons in the NFL and was selected to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team as a return man.
He posted eight career kick/punt return touchdowns, including six by punt, which is tied for ninth in NFL history, and ranks in the top 10 with 3,317 career punt return yards (seventh). Fields, an offensive lineman and member of the Widener Athletics Hall of Fame, was selected by the New York Jets in the 1975 draft and played 14 seasons in the league (four All-Pro seasons).
The lineage of success on the gridiron within Watkins’ family runs deep and that slogan of “Brick by Brick” means so much to how he oversees his program.
“It’s something that I really believe in: through the development of our guys and getting them to come into our classroom,” Watkins said. “Our football field is our classroom and we’re teaching them as football players and young men.
"The other part of it is understanding each member of the program, the community and everyone involved is a brick and foundation of what we’re trying to build. If we’re not rock solid or a brick is not in place doing its own job, that wall crumbles down. We’ve worked really hard to get it to a point where the kids understand they have to be accountable. That’s the core value of the Brick by Brick culture: making sure you’re accountable for yourself so your brick is helping hold that wall together and doing your job.”
Mike Watkins pictured with his team after defeating West Catholic last fall in the District 12 Championship to advance to the PIAA 2A playoffs - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison
Behind quarterback Lonnie Rice (University of Buffalo), the Royal Lancers won the District 12 Class 2A title last season and advanced to the state quarterfinals before losing to Pine Richland. That district title came a year after losing in the final in double overtime to West Catholic on a bad snap on an extra-point attempt. There’s one of many bricks that have been earned and built into the foundation of the Bishop McDevitt program. Watkins went 7-12 in his first two years but he led his team to an 8-3 record in year three. A year ago, they finished 7-7 and, in showing that, the team is not only competitive but also can play deep in the state tournament, their recent success has attracted attention.
Johnny Pergine, the 6-foot, 215-pound junior linebacker who leads the team with 34 total tackles (11 for loss), 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, transferred from Spring-Ford High School to Bishop McDevitt in the offseason. His grandfather, John Pergine Sr., played at Plymouth Whitemarsh, Notre Dame and finally seven seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Los Angeles Rams. Pergine was a force on his former team as evidenced by his key tackle on Perkiomen Valley’s Jacob Sturm on 4th down to seal the Rams win in the Pioneer Athletic Conference Liberty Division title game last year. He and the Rams went on to win the league crown as well.
For Pergine, he was elated by what Watkins had to share as a coach and a teacher.
“Brick by Brick for me means that everyone who comes to the school is from different backgrounds and it’s just one step at a time,” Pergine said. “We work together to complete our goal, which at the end of the day, is to become state champions.”
In order to win the program’s first state title, they will have to dethrone Southern Columbia, which has won its first two PIAA playoff games by an average of 31 points. The winner plays the winner of Beaver Falls-Wilmington in the championship game in Hershey next weekend. The Royal Lancers are looking to become the first Philadelphia Catholic League team, other than St. Joseph’s Prep or Archbishop Wood, to win a state title since West Catholic in 2010.
After an offseason full of uncertainty, Bishop McDevitt was just happy to be able to play at all. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia delayed the beginning of the fall sports season then canceled it and eventually made the decision to start things up late. Schedules were shuffled around and the Royal Lancers had to play the Vikings, the defending PIAA Class 5A champion, in the season opener. That’s the last time they lose a game.
They defeated Pottstown by five touchdowns then upended Conwell-Egan to secure their second straight District 12 2A title, the first time they’ve won back-to-back district crowns in program history. Add another brick to the wall.
The state tournament began with a dominant 47-7 victory over Dunmore, where several players were integral to the Royal Lancers’ success. Quarterback Nick Santo, who took over for Rice this season, threw for 221 yards and four touchdowns in the win. Rice, who recorded 32 total touchdowns as a senior and left the program with the school records for career yards from scrimmage, completions and touchdowns, is a tough act to follow but since taking over during the Pottstown game, he’s been efficient and productive.
Sophomore running back James Bermudez has been terrific this season rushing for 433 yards and four touchdowns. He propelled the Royals Lancers to its 26-14 state quarterfinal win over Camp Hill with 111 rushing yards.
Bishop McDevitt’s offense relies heavily on the ground game and having the 5-foot-10 back post performances as he did last week could be the difference between a state title and a long drive back home. Bermudez stressed that last week’s win was another brick in the wall but the Royal Lancers had to immediately turn their attention to the next game.
“It’s always good to celebrate in the moment and realize that we made history but when Sunday came around, Coach Watkins started sending out film and we went straight to work,” Bermudez said. “Coaches were giving us pointers and things to look out for. We’ve been going after it, what they do well and how we can go around that. They show us how we need to attack and get into a good mentality for this team.”
There were two unexpected performances in the triumph over Camp Hill. Corner Emmanuel Sia returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown and Semaj Bridgeman hauled in a 32-yard score from Santo to ice the game. Watkins said Bridgeman, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound sophomore linebacker who has seven tackles for loss this season and boasts offers from LSU and Ole Miss, “can play inside, outside, rush the passer, drop into coverage, blitz and do so many things.” It was a surprise to see him contribute on the offensive end but that touchdown put them in position to advance.
It has certainly been a grind to get to this point but Pergine, along with his teammates, knows they control what they do. He emphasized that they are playing their best football at the right time.
Coach Mike Watkins and the Royal Lancers are looking to continue their historic journey this Saturday in the PIAA 2A semifinals - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison
“We took a hard loss to open the season and that motivated everyone to work even harder, watch film and push ourselves every day,” Pergine said. “Practice is our hardest battle because we push everyone to get better. For the past couple weeks, our game has come together, especially on the offensive front. We’ve been pushing the ball down field and scoring a lot. Everyone has been clicking as a group.”
Adding bricks is the goal and the Royal Lancers could add two in the coming weeks: winning a state semifinal game and ultimately winning a title. First things first, they have to win Saturday’s matchup against Southern Columbia.
Bermudez, who has been in the program for two years, has seen what this program can accomplish when all the bricks are in place and the foundation, being Watkins, is holding everything together.
“That Brick by Brick [mantra] means that every player has a certain amount of time to leave their mark on the program,” Bermudez said. “This year, we put down a brick on making it to the state semifinals and being the first team to do that in school history. Last year, as a freshman, we put down a brick of beating West Catholic for the first time in 17 years. It’s pretty much making history and leaving your mark, which is that brick. You just keep building brick by brick to the point where it gets to be strong enough of a wall to where people are thinking, ‘They’re pretty strong.’ That’s because of those bricks that we keep putting down day by day from watching film, working out together and going hard at practice. Those are the little things that make that brick then we put that brick down and make it a part of history.”
Watkins has the Royals Lancers primed to do something they have never done before but there is an even bigger matter looming in the background as Bishop McDevitt will close its doors forever at the end of the year.
Still, there is football to be played and the longtime Lancer understands this run could help ease the impending agony to come.
“Football matters to the McDevitt community,” Watkins said. “For me to be able to be the head coach after Coach Manzi had been here for years and to build on success and a little brand of my own, it’s been tremendous using football as our platform to teach a lot of kids to grow and learn life lessons like sacrifice, hard work and time management. Those are all going to help them later in life. I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity at the place that provided it for me.”