By: John Knebels
HERSHEY, PA – It’s been more than two weeks since the St. Joseph’s Prep football team left Hershey Park Stadium one win shy of its ultimate goal.
For a program accustomed to winning a state championship on a near-annual basis, it came as quite a shock to watch Mount Lebanon celebrate a 35-17 PIAA Class 6A championship December 11 enveloped by mercurial weather that began unseasonably mild and later transformed into a wet, windy, and chilly annoyance.
Joyful smiles were replaced with tears of disappointment. Jubilant embraces turned into hugs of consolation. Hoisting a first-place trophy on a fourth-consecutive occasion and the seventh time in nine years was downgraded to reluctantly accepting a runner-up plaque.
As the Hawks gathered around Tim Roken and listened to the palpably proud head coach extol their efforts and remind them that the hurt they were feeling contained immeasurable merit, players appeared bewildered, hoping they were just enduring a bad dream.
Thankfully, however, with time comes the gift of perspective. Now that high school football has formally come to a close, several Hawks were asked to share their thoughts about an 11-3 season that included a nine-game winning streak, a District 12 crown, and a trip to Hershey.
“Yes, this one hurts,” said senior Dane Picariello. “I think about that night in Hershey every day. But to look back on this year and ask anyone from the outside watching us, I guarantee you that the 2021 SJP Hawks had a lot of doubters right from the start of this season.
“The score of a single football game is simply a temporary measure of ability by two teams for four quarters. One score will never define us.”
Picariello, a first-team “multi-purpose” All-Catholic, took over for injured sophomore starter Samaj Jones at quarterback for a three-game stretch and piloted the Hawks to a win over La Salle to secure a Class 6A district final berth, then did the same in a District 12 championship win over Northeast.
Before leaving the field for the last time as a scholastic athlete, Picariello delivered an emotional speech to underclassmen, imploring them to use their disappointment as a springboard for an even-more successful 2022.
“I don’t think it’s suitable to call this team young,” said Picariello. “Regardless of the majority of our team being underclassmen, these young men are beyond their years and have blown me away in their ability to shine under the bright lights of many hectic atmospheres.
“The positives of this season are simply us blocking out the outside noise of doubt and putting our heads down and going to work every single day. Clearly that mindset we adopted regardless of our youth showed everyone that the SJP Hawks don’t need a senior-filled roster to light up the scoreboard and make a playoff run all the way to Hershey.
“This one will hurt especially because I personally have no more time left on this team, but I have all the faith in the world that this team will take this disappointment and turn it into fire in their belly for years to come. We will be back, and it was a pleasure to lead this team on this run. Trust and Love, baby.”
The Prep underclassmen appreciated – and supported - Picariello’s sentiments.
“It leaves a sour taste in our mouth,” said junior wide receiver Owen Garwood, whose blocked punt helped the Hawks defeat La Salle, 35-7, in the Class 6A District 12 Catholic League final. “Nobody likes losing. It was heartbreaking. But with that being said, we’re going to come back with an edge and be extremely focused on the end goal for next year in the offseason and work as hard as we can to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”
Junior Josiah Trotter, who started the scoring in the state final when he caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Jones, drew rave reviews from his Mount Lebanon foes because of his limitless energy and his constant ability to out-physical an offensive lineman, running back, tight end, or receiver.
According to the first-team All-Catholic linebacker, the focus of the season should not be on the loss, but instead, in what the Prep achieved against some of the state’s toughest competition.
“It really showed us what this team is capable of doing and accomplishing in the future,” said Trotter. “We will continue to get better and use the loss as fuel for next year.
“Handling disappointment is hard, but I know God does everything for a reason, and that it is just setting us up for something greater.”
Junior Mike DiTrolio, a second-team All-Catholic wide receiver and also a defensive back, was a man of few words.
“All I can say,” said DiTrolio, “is that next year we will be a very dangerous team.”
So what else is new?
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)