By: John Knebels
Photos/Videos: Geanine Jamison
SELINSGROVE, PA –As the 2019-20 school year came to a close, Johnny Pergine wanted a change. No longer content at Spring-Ford High School, Pergine searched for a better venue to spend his final two scholastic years as both a student and athlete.
He found Bishop McDevitt.
“The coaches were incredible,” said Pergine, a football and lacrosse player, “and the atmosphere at McDevitt fit me perfectly.”
As mostly everyone knows by now, Pergine and hundreds of other underclassmen will need to uproot from their safe haven because the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced on November 18 that Bishop McDevitt and John W. Hallahan High Schools would close at the conclusion of the academic school year.
A surreal occurrence that shocked, saddened, and angered current students, teachers, administrators, and thousands of alumni, no one was more blindsided than the approximately 50 Lancers that comprise the varsity football squad.
When told before football practice on that suddenly solemn Wednesday afternoon, Pergine and his teammates thought they were fodder for an early Thanksgiving Fool’s Day prank. No one had even considered that McDevitt was in danger of padlocking its doors in June of 2021. The mere thought was ludicrous.
Even more ridiculous was the timing. The Lancers were preparing to play in the PIAA Class 2A state semifinals against perennial power Southern Columbia Area High School – 10 state titles, including three straight; 58-game winning streak; 10-0 record . . . you get the idea – on November 21 at Selinsgrove High School.
A “bring-your-headphones-and-reading-material” bus ride two and a half hours west of Wyncote, football was – or at least should have been – the primary concern on the minds of players and coaches.
Then their world turned upside down. Three days later, their football season ended with a physical and emotional thud.
Only in 2020 . . .
After grabbing an early 6-0 lead, the Lancers surrendered 21 first-half points and fell to the talented Tigers, 42-14.
“I loved the way we played for each other,” said McDevitt coach Mike Watkins. “We battled adversity all year. I’m forever proud to have coached this program and serve this school. I’m not giving up hope that something can be done. McDevitt is a school that is truly special to a number of communities. We deserve better.”
While not what they had anticipated – untimely turnovers and penalties proved fatal – the Lancers (4-2 final record) didn’t blame an emotional roller coaster for their defeat.
“It knocked us off our game a little bit three days before playing in a state semifinal,” said Pergine, “but that’s not why we lost. We’re not making excuses. They outplayed us.”
In almost any other situation, McDevitt’s players and coaches would have been peppered with football questions during post-game interviews. Not this time, not on this sad occasion
Maybe it could be argued that losing by four touchdowns took away some of the sting; after all, imagine the lamentation if the Lancers had been defeated by a last-second field goal, or a last-minute fumble, or a curious call by an official.
But listening to senior offense, defense, and special teams senior starter Joachim McElroy talk with PhiladelphiaSportsDigest’s Geanine Jamison just minutes after the final football whistle of McDevitt’s 58-year gridiron chronicle, losing by 28 was secondary.
A visibly emotional McElroy said that if he “had gone to any other school, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I got my freshman year.” Then he expressed his reverence, affection and appreciation for McDevitt’s loyal alums.
A few hours later, a more composed McElroy again reflected on McDevitt’s imminent demise.
“I was completely blindsided with the news as Coach Mike broke it to us,” said McElroy. “My heart dropped to my stomach, and it was just devastating.”
From a practical point of view, McDevitt’s closing more profoundly affects juniors such as Pergine and Emmanuel Sia (against Southern Columbia, he scored the first TD off a 13-yard pass from senior quarterback Nick Santo; freshman Keon Kenner scored the second on a five-yard run with 2:43 remaining in the fourth, with a two-point conversion pass from Santos to sophomore Mekhi Watson serving as the final points – and, in happier times, a trivia answer – ever scored by a Royal Lancer).
With limited time and arguably unstable opportunity, those underclassmen are now tasked with discovering an entirely new school community, curriculum, philosophy, and coaching staff in just a few months time.
“I’m upset in a lot of ways,” said Pergine. “I made a bond with these kids. I would have liked to come back. Most of the team was returning. We would have been really good again next year. I mean, I get to turn a new chapter, but I would much rather finish my career at Bishop McDevitt.”
Still undecided about what college he will attend but confident he will still play football, McElroy is grateful he was able to complete his career at McDevitt instead of finding a future quick fix.
“Being a senior opposed to an underclassman dealing with this is obviously different but still extremely saddening,” he said. “We don’t have to go find another high school and family. We’re moving on to another chapter in our lives.
“The news of Bishops McDevitt closing means that me and all my boys in the senior class don’t ever get to come back in five years to see the effects of the program we built. I no longer have the opportunity to come back to my alma mater and give back to the place that made me who I am. It breaks my heart.”
One of McDevitt’s current standouts – Eric Gardner– is only a sophomore. An accomplished student, Gardner’s resume includes being named an All-Catholic defensive lineman as a freshman and a long highlight reel as a two-way tackle.
Already having heard from several interested Division I schools, Gardner is already investigating where he will land come next August and said either St. Joseph’s Prep, Archbishop Wood, or Lansdale Catholic is likely his ultimate destination.
Not surprisingly, Gardner said Bishop McDevitt’s underclassmen are “not really thinking too much about schoolwork” and have already begun conversing about who’s thinking about going here and who’s thinking about going there.
“Honestly, right now I feel like my heart was taken away from me getting the information that the school was shutting down, and also that we lost the game,” said Gardner. “My jersey was full of tears, not because we lost, but because I will never get to play with my brothers that were in the Class of ’21 again.
“Hearing the news this week was terrible, but everyone came together and tried to do as much as possible to support us in every way.”
McDevitt senior linebacker and three-year varsity performer Jaylen Dorsey said he had always envisioned “coming back and coaching or to help support the school and the team . . . and it just breaks my heart. But then again, I’m proud of what we accomplished through the ups and downs of this season, and to be the first and last team to make it to the Final Four in McDevitt history is a positive to go out on.”
A transfer from Roman Catholic as a sophomore, senior linebacker K.J. Henderson agreed that losing to Southern Columbia did not diminish the Lancers’ overall accomplishments.
“These last two days of practice were definitely different,” said Henderson. “I've never felt this supported in all of my football career. There's something special about this McDevitt program, and it's a shame that it had to end the way it did.
“Southern Columbia was who we thought they were. They came out and were disciplined, well coached, and took advantage of mental mistakes on our part. Our whole team played with a chip on our shoulder.
“The program and school means a lot to us, so when we heard that it was closing, it made the game mean that much more. Obviously, we didn't get the result we wanted, but we definitely took the game personally, because we knew that the McDevitt alumni, coaches, and whole community had our back.”
That’s something that no one can ever take away.
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)