Six football teams across the state of Pennsylvania each December get to say they won their last playoff football game of the season – meaning they are state champions in a commonwealth in which some 500 high schools field a program in its football-crazy small towns, suburbs and cities. For the past quarter century, the Bishop McDevitt Crusaders have come close – very close – to winning that last game, but in heartbreaking fashion that last game victory has eluded one of the most successful Pennsylvania football programs.
On a perfect, almost calm, chilly December 8, under the lights at the PIAA’s new football state championship venue – Harry Chapman Field on the campus of Cumberland Valley High School – the Crusaders faced the Quips of Aliquippa again in the Class 4A before some 6,000 fans. Last year, the Crusaders lost to the Quips, who grounded out a victory with ball control and limited mistake-prone football. It was a recipe that worked behind a huge offensive line that took control in the second half and just wore out the Crusaders defensively. The disappointment and heartbreak after that loss last year was painfully visible, yet ominously hidden was the birth of a consuming mission to conquer this loss and turn it into future triumph.
When the ghost of Christmas future visited the Crusaders’ dreams in the middle of the night last December 9 after that stinging loss, the picture painted by Dickens’ fictional ghost was not a bleak one. With nearly the entire team returning at every skill position, the Crusaders’ dream of finally getting a state championship for their head coach Jeff Waechter was a reality with commitment, hard work and team unity. But, beating the defending and seasoned Quips, who also returned a wealth of talent from last year’s championship team, was the task at hand for the Crusades, who cruised through their regular season beating every opponent but one, Philadelphia’s Imhotep Charter, another team in the state finals (Class 5A), in a week-one clash at a neutral site.
The undefeated Quips’ strength is up front where their offensive and defensive lines average well over 300 pounds – they control the line of scrimmage and wear teams down physically. After forcing a Quips’ three-and-out in the game’s first series, McDevitt struck with a nifty slant pattern from sophomore quarterback Stone Saunders (5 TD passes) to wideout Tyshawn Russell (4 TD catches), who broke loose to make it 7-0, not even two minutes into the game.
“That first play was designed to be a run, but like all year, Saunders did a great job, reading the defense and called the throw just like he has been doing all year,” Coach Waechter said after the game. “If you are going to stack the box on us, we will make you pay by throwing the ball.”
And that is what makes McDevitt, McDevitt. They throw the ball with a precision and quick strike ability few high school teams can do, much less defend. One-on-one outside coverage with no safety help on top is what the Crusaders seek, and they found plenty of opportunities to strike against a Quips defense not able to get enough pressure on Saunders to prevent those homerun balls.
But, what won the football game for the Crusaders was what got them to the finals again this year: a stout defense, led by interior linemen Riley Robell and Tay’Qujuan Hughes, who won the line of scrimmage all night long against an NFL-sized Quips’ line. If game balls were given out, the entire Crusaders’ defense controlled the push of the game throughout.
Like last year’s game, there were momentum swings that almost all went McDevitt’s way this time. Neither team played mistake-free football, but the Quips fumbled and were intercepted in their territory which gave McDevitt a short field to build a 34-6 lead with 16 minutes to go in regulation. But a pick-six interception by the Quips and another score narrowed the lead to 34-18 early in the fourth quarter and the tension in the McDevitt stands was real. “Are we going to blow this?” had to be on Crusaders’ fans minds as multiple times in the last decade, a winnable game slipped away on the state’s biggest stage.
But with a five-minute drive running the football behind their own stout offensive line, the Crusader’s University-of-Minnesota bound Marquese Williams single handedly marched the football down the field and punched the ball in on a 4th and goal from the 2-yard-line to seal the win with less than five minutes left.
So let the sideline celebrations commence, and with it 25 years of frustration, loss and heartbreak were overcome by the joy of fulfilling a year-long mission which began last December on a cold night when there was no celebration, only steely determination to win their last game of the season next December, which they did, 41-18.
“It feels great,” Coach Waechter said, looking at his celebrating players. “And they did it, they did it. It was all them.”
Aliquippa is a storied, successful program in Pittsburgh’s WPIAL conference – a football rich area that has produced Hall of Fame and Super Bowl greats like Mike Ditka, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino, to name only a few. With Steel High, Harrisburg High and Bishop McDevitt all within five miles of each other and playing for state championships this year, the Capital Region of the commonwealth can credibly lay claim to being the state’s football elite area in 2022.
“As far as I’m concerned, I left everything I had on this field… I had to crawl off this field here before I just let them take this from me,” Riley Robell said. “That was the game plan going into this, win or lose.”
Win, McDevitt did – the last game of the season.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness