By: John Knebels
OCEAN CITY, NJ – Was that really a September football game?!
Usually it takes several weeks for teams to solidify fundamentals like tackling and secondary coverage, but in La Salle’s 10-7 victory over Malvern Prep in the much-anticipated clash between two of the state’s top programs Sept. 3 at Ocean City High School, both teams appeared in mid-season form.
Like all great games, it took until the last play – an interception and 32-yard return by La Salle senior Ryan Moore inside the final minute – to decide a victor.
“Two minute drill, they gotta throw the ball deep,” said Moore. “Knew it was coming. Just broke on the ball and made a play. We knew what they had to do, and the whole defense executed.”
The Explorers, fresh off a dominating 21-0 opening-season win over Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt, nearly snared another shutout. Malvern’s only points came courtesy of senior Isaiah Wright’s five-yard touchdown with 1:13 left in the second quarter. Though the Friars – playing in their season opener – executed in stretches, La Salle’s defense appeared in no real threat to surrender more points.
Before Wright’s touchdown, a meticulously manicured 99-yard scoring drive gave the Explorers a 7-0 lead.
The drive began with two seconds left in the first quarter and ended with 3:43 remaining in the second, the 8-minute, 43-second journey culminated by a four-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Alan Paturzo to senior running back Sam Brown.
At halftime, fans from both sides seemed more festive than usual, not surprising considering the storybook venue. Rarely do suburban-based Philadelphia football programs enjoy the anomaly of competing on a field fewer than 50 yards from a beach boardwalk . . . fewer than 100 yards from the Atlantic Ocean.
“The atmosphere was electric,” said Paturzo. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. That game is something I hope becomes a tradition because memories were made on and off the field that night and will be a day I’ll never forget.”
Midway through the third quarter, La Salle drove inside Malvern territory but faced a fourth down. In came one of high school’s most accurate kickers, senior Santiago Sturla. With senior Kevin Hawley snapping and senior Connor Mehlmann holding, Sturla calmly booted a 35-yard field goal with 7:19 left in the third to give the Explorers a 10-7 lead.
“I had full confidence in my holder and the rest of my team,” said Sturla. “The field goal unit did everything perfectly.”
Thanks to a tenacious performance by their linemen, linebackers, and secondary, those three points were all the Explorers would need.
“Malvern Prep is one of our rivals and it was great to beat them,” said standout senior linebacker Chris Thompson. “Everyone played their butts off – both ways. Malvern Prep had a great game and they did everything they were supposed to do, but I feel like we just worked a little bit harder and we were a little bit better and a little bit stronger.”
And, after a two-hour postgame celebration walking along the food-lined Ocean City boards, a little more full in the stomach.
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)