Photos/Videos: Benji Rawson & John Knebels
By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – After he caught the short pass, St. Joseph’s Prep senior Mike DiTrolio did the rest. Avoided a couple of tackles, sped toward the left pylon, and landed on his feet in the end zone.
Junior receiver Elijah Jones was the first to congratulate him, and senior lineman Joe McMahon picked him up off the ground . . . because, well, some touchdowns feel better than others.
While DiTrolio’s 13-yard score with 1:48 remaining in the first half did little to affect the ultimate outcome of the Hawks’ could-have-been-more-dominant 48-7 PIAA Class 6A state semifinal demolition of Garnet Valley December 3 at Northeast High School, its importance was emphasized by his teammates and head coach Tim Roken.
“I’m so proud of him and how hard he works,” said Roken, whose program will try to capture its seventh state title and fourth in five years against rugged District 3 champion Harrisburg 7:00 December 10 at Cumberland Valley High School. “He’s loved by our guys.
“He did a great job even when he was injured. He became a coach, coaching up the other guys, finding ways to get better. He has that mentality to continue to grind.”
Roken was referring to a high ankle sprain that DiTrolio suffered on the second play of a scrimmage on August 20 when he was tackled from behind. The malady cost the future civil engineering major at a still unnamed college the first nine games of the season.
Last year as a junior, after having caught 13 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns in six games, a broken foot obliterated DiTrolio’s final seven. Making matters even worse, DiTrolio is also a standout wrestler who, as a sophomore, had finished undefeated in the regular season and had captured the Philadelphia Catholic League individual championship at 160 pounds. Instead of spending the winter of 2022 twisting opponent bodies into pretzels, DiTrolio tolerated the drudgery of physical therapy until healing completely in June.
The combination injury in consecutive years wreaked havoc on DiTrolio’s mind and spirit.
“I wasn’t sure if I would ever play again,” he said. “I mean, there were many days when it was hard to get out of bed, but I found other ways to occupy my time like reading or lifting.”
Perseverance, determination, grit, resilience . . . call it whatever, but those intangibles soon became DiTrolio’s most powerful gifts.
“I was desperate to get back on the field, but I had to learn from last year to not rush anything,” he said. “During that time, I rested and let my body do its thing. I was just thankful that I could still train my upper body.”
That helps explain why the Prep football community celebrated the team’s seventh and final touchdown – all scored in the first half – with more exuberance than the others.
As exciting as the Prep’s first six jaunts to the end zone – a 21-yard sprint by junior quarterback and PCL Most Valuable Player Samaj Jones, a 12-yard plow by junior Erik Sanchez, a 50-yard carry by junior Kahseim Phillips, a 70-yard, flick-and-fly from Jones to junior David Washington, a 38-yard TD dart from Jones to junior Brandon Rehmann, and a nine-yard dash by sophomore Isaiah West – DiTrolio’s touchdown meant the most.
“My favorite moment of our season was when Elijah Jones gave him a long hug in the end zone after he scored his first touchdown since being back from injury last week,” said assistant wide receivers coach Joe Frio, a 2015 Prep alum who played wide receiver on the school’s first two state titles in 2013 and 2014. “We talk about trust and love being the foundation of our program. That’s what trust and love looks like.”
True to form, DiTrolio downplayed his touchdown, making sure to mention several teammates that helped make it possible, a testament to the Prep’s oft-repeated credo that individuality takes a significant backseat to team.
After all, he was one of seven – seven – different players to score touchdowns before reserves enjoyed some quality opportunity during a second half that lasted less than 45 minutes because of a merciful running clock courtesy of the 35-point-lead sportsmanship rule aided by Hawk defenders such as senior Josiah Trotter, senior Cole Nilles, junior Nick McGlynn, and junior Sean McNulty.
But make no mistake. The touchdown meant plenty for a player labeled a “warrior whose physicality sets the tone for our group” by Frio and “one of the best kids I’ve ever come across” by Prep athletic director and longtime PCL administrator Dan DiBerardinis.
After DiTrolio scored, turned around, and was greeted by his ecstatic teammates, a joyous “Oh my God!” emanated from inside his helmet.
“We spread the ball around,” said aforementioned quarterback Samaj Jones. “We have a lot of playmakers on our team. There’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t touch the ball.
“But before we went out on that drive, I told him, ‘I’m gonna get you.’ Out of everybody on our team, he’s the hardest working guy. He works when the lights are off. I love him to death, and I can’t wait to see him succeed more.”
Riding an 11-game winning streak, DiTrolio and his mates have one last hurdle. It promises to be their most difficult when they meet Harrisburg, which overwhelmed previously undefeated District 6 bulldog State College, 27-7.
A win would not only cement one of the Prep’s most successful seasons ever, it would help expunge much of the disappointment that still remains from last year’s loss in the state final.
“We just have to correct the mistakes we made last year,” said DiTrolio. “That’s what it’s all about. You just keep moving forward.”
Spoken like an expert.
(Contact John Knebels at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.)