As if right out of the scene in Charles Dickens’ timeless novel A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas past came calling again for the Crusaders of Bishop McDevitt in the Class 4A PIAA state football final against Aliquippa at HersheyPark Stadium on a cold, but perfect night for football in Chocolatetown.
In a scintillating December 9 game that featured big plays, pivotal moments of momentum swings that make Pennsylvania championship football the exciting draw it is, the Crusaders jumped out to a 13-0 lead just two minutes into the game. But, by the first quarter’s midway point, the Quips showed off their offensive explosiveness, followed by a nifty pick-6 to make the score 14-13. That momentum swing seemingly deflated McDevitt’s balloon for the rest of the game.
Thursday night’s championship game was the fourth time in 11 years that McDevitt has reached the state final game, but its first since 2013. And that ghost of past near-misses continues to haunt the Crusaders; though the names on the roster change, these great athletes and football players in blue and Vegas gold continue to find disappointment in Hershey. Still, there is much to be proud of with this Crusader team.
“In my 24 years of coaching, I do not know that I have ever been more proud of a football team than this one,” 24-year veteran Coach Jeff Weachter said to the media after the game. “They played a great team over there and we played a great game. I am proud of them, and never have I been more proud.”
There is much to be proud of. The Crusaders lost in week one to Philly-based LaSalle College High in August, only to cruise through the rest of the conference schedule with total ease. Not until the District 3 championship game played at Bishop McDevitt against Lampeter-Strasburg did the Crusaders run into a test on a cold, blustery night that felt more like mid-January than the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The Crusaders escaped with a 7-0 win, and if the Pioneers had not fumbled the football three times in the red zone, McDevitt’s quest for that elusive state championship would been gone with the wind that night. Give great credit to the Crusaders’ great defense though; they were the unit responsible for bringing home another District 3 gold trophy for this immensely successful program.
In the state semi-final game against the Eagles of Bishop Shanahan on the first Friday of December, McDevitt won 28-21, after scoring two touchdowns early in the third quarter to break a halftime tie of 14-14, which gave the Eagles too much mountain to climb to come back. With 123 yards of penalties and several special-team miscues, the Crusaders’ defense made a late fourth quarter stand to escape Coatesville with a dramatic win and a ticket to Hershey to meet the Quips of Aliquippa.
With the score tied 20-20 at half in the state final, it was either team’s game to win or lose. The Quips were able to drive the field twice for scores to go up by 14 as quarter four began. This great football game between two evenly matched prized fighters hinged, however, on several punches the Quips landed on the jaw and the Crusaders did not.
Late in the first half, McDevitt failed to convert a fourth and two just outside the Quips’ 20-yard line that would have set-up a golden opportunity to take a one-score lead into the warm locker room at half. Never could the Crusaders run the football with needed consistency – they lost the time of possession battle by far and that put a tired and asked-much-of defense at peril all game long.
Credit goes to Aliquippa, who came into the game with a score to settle with the PIAA, which is making the program jump to 5A in classification next year given that they have had more than three transfers into the district to play football in the past year. Given the old steel town’s steep decline in population, it seems a stiff penalty to pay for a school that only has 33 seniors in its 2022 graduating class.
The Quips played like a team with nothing to lose as they converted three crucial fourth downs in the second half to ice the Crusaders. The last one, a fourth-and-one with less than three minutes left in their own territory, was a gutsy and bold call by head coach Mike Warfield. The conversion gave the Quips the opportunity to run out the clock on the Crusaders, who could only helplessly watch the ticks melt off the clock with no timeouts left to stop a fresh set of downs.
The ghost of Christmas present now came haunting, chains clanging with that bold gambit by the Quips. The final score was 34-27.
The loss brings a close to a group of seniors that Coach Weachter said after the game “had brought back McDevitt football to this level.” As the story goes, this current disappointment will not linger long, as the ghost of Christmas future surely paints a picture full of hope and redemption for the Crusaders as they return the majority of their starting offense and defense. The next 365 days will be about hard work and forging that bond already clearly present with the goal of returning to Hershey to put those novel-created ghosts to bed for good.
“It became very clear tonight that we are going to be even more motivated,” junior and team leader Riley Robell said after the game. “This fire now. If this doesn’t fuel us, nothing will.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness