HERSHEY, PA –The clock showed all zeros, and players on the sideline stormed the field to meet their heroic peers. St. Joseph’s Prep had defeated Harrisburg, 40-20, in the PIAA Class 6A state championship December 8 at an electric Hersheypark Stadium.
While finishing a perfect 13-0 season and capturing their fourth state title in six years, the Prep left everything they had on the field. Subpar for their standards – turnovers, penalties, kicking game woes – the Hawks turned an early 7-0 deficit in to a 20-7, first-quarter lead and ultimately broke open a tight contest with two four-quarter touchdowns.
The post-game visuals could have provided Hallmark investors a stock increase. Proud parents hugging their bruised, sweat-drenched sons … emotional seniors embracing fellow seniors, suddenly realizing that their scholastic careers had come to a close . . . excited underclassmen promising anyone who would listen that the Prep’s future remains in strong, capable hands.
As is typical for a program that has amassed a staggering 91-22 record under nine-year coach Gabe Infante – and a surreal 40-1 over the past three –the state-title contributions were spread throughout the roster.
Sophomore quarterback Kyle McCord, whose one-yard touchdown plunge gave the Hawks a 27-14 halftime lead, completed 26 of 37 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns and finished his first season with an astounding 2,883 yards and 35 scores . . . Junior Kolbe Burrell enveloped 147 yards and a 59-yard scoring scamper on 17 carries . . . Senior Marques Mason collected 91 yards on the ground, caught six passes for 72 more yards, and tallied the final two touchdowns of the season . . . Senior Johnny Freeman seized four receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown . . . Sophomore Marvin Harrison, Jr., nabbed eight catches for 76 yards.
Take a deep breath; there was a lot more.
Junior Anthony Rightley set a state final record with three interceptions while also adding a touchdown reception . . . Sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, Jr., and senior linebacker Myles Talley combined for 24 tackles (15 unassisted, nine assisted). . . Senior linebacker Cooper Kim and junior linebacker Liam Johnson were involved in eight and seven tackles, respectively.
Later, when they conducted what probably seemed like countless interviews, the Hawks spoke about their systematic, almost stoic approach to the season. Whether it was a District 3 champion squad like Harrisburg, or a Catholic League Red Division team that had yet to win a single game, the Hawks prepared the same way in practice and film study.
Regardless of whom they defeated – such as the 37-0 shellacking of state semifinal foe Pine-Richland, which last year ruined the Prep’s perfect season in the state final – the Hawks stopped their celebrating by the time they had showered and returned home. It was like that from the jump; it was like that last season, and the season before that.
In a season that truly could not have gone any better, several Hawks were asked a series of questions. Their thoughtful replies encompassed the team-first philosophy made tangible by Infante and his assistants, both experienced and young.
*** Senior Jack Sutton was a wide receiver whose numbers paled in comparison to several other Hawks. Sutton arguably would have been a standout on every other Catholic League team and on many if not all of the Prep’s non-league opponents.
Asked if he had any regrets about leaving significant playing time behind, Sutton offered an emphatic “No.”
“The thought has crossed my mind a few times, but I would not trade my time at the Prep for anything,” said Sutton. “My parents provided me the opportunity to play football and I met a bunch of great athletes and even better friends. I would not trade the friends that I’ve made for the world. It was never about my personal success. It was about making the people better around me, and as a team.”
*** Fellow receiver Freeman was asked what it was like competing with a first-team, All-Catholic sophomore quarterback whose age belied his physical and mental abilities on the playing field.
“It was great,” said Freeman. “Kyle would always put the ball where only I can get it, and he would protect his receivers by the placement of the ball.”
As for what they would remember – and miss – most about Prep football, players spoke both in general and specifics.
*** “I’ll miss everything about it,” said Freeman. “It’s been great playing with the guys, the best friends I’ve made, and the memories we’ve had. There’s nothing like it, and I’ll miss that the most.”
*** “It was a great time,” said Mason. “I loved every bit of it. Made so many new friends and bonds and being successful just reinforced the love I have for Prep football.
“A lot of moments I’ll never forget; so many to choose from,” Mason added. “I think it was Kyle’s QB sneak for a TD. The way we all scored together, the whole 11 made sure he fell into the end zone. We all scored. It speaks to how we predicate our play. We finish together.”
*** “(I would remember that) we were challenged every step of the way,” said junior linebacker Liam Johnson. “No one in the state responded better to those challenges than my brothers.”
*** “Every week there was a target on our backs, whether it be a regular season or postseason game, because of the reputation we have made for ourselves as a team,” said senior cornerback Zach Bouggess. "However, each week was great to battle it out with these teams.”
*** “There were a lot, but one moment that stood out was our win against La Salle in the playoffs,” said senior cornerback Mike Alexander.“How we stuck together through adversity reminded me of our first couple of games. After winning that game I knew we could go far.”
After the fans had exited frigid Hersheypark Stadium and all that was left on the field were some players and family members, Kim and Infante spoke privately for a few minutes and finished with an emotional embrace.
A few days later, both men were asked about the other.
“Coach Infante is a big role model of mine,” said Kim. “I have so much love for him and all he has done for me and my brothers. He has had a plan for me and has believed in me ever since I arrived at the Prep. Coach has always challenged me – day in and day out – to get the best out of me and has played a big role in changing me into the man I am today.
IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST FOOTBALL...
“He’s taught me how to be strong, and all about the power of trust and love. He’s taught me how to get the best out of myself and others. He’s helped me through some tough times with what my mom has gone through. He isn’t just a coach to me; he’s like another father, not just to me, but to every player on our team. He has brought our team together and turned a bunch of guys from the tri-state area into blood brothers.
“He has made me a better player, leader, and a better man by pushing me beyond my limits on and off the field, day after day after day. I wouldn’t be who I am without him. Words really can’t describe how much he means to me personally.”
Infante, who is one of four finalists for the US Army All-American Bowl National Coach of the Year Award, which will be presented at the game January 4 in San Antonio – an award he won after the undefeated 2016 campaign – responded in kind.
“He made a promise at the end of last season to get us back to the state title game and win it, and that’s exactly what he did,” said Infante. “In the end, Cooper transformed himself into the type of leader that was essential for our season.
“Tireless worker, vocal leader, selfless teammate, and a fierce competitor. I admire him greatly and will miss coaching him. He is everything you would want in a son, brother, and teammate.”
Doesn’t get much better than that.
Coach Gabe Infante & senior Cooper Kim share a special moment after winning the 2018 PIAA 6A championship - Photo by John Knebels