December 13, 2019
In the end, the pieces that were supposed to be there were wearing grey sweats and state championship jackets— from the previous season. In the end, it wasn’t even the team that started out in August as a nationally ranked area-beater every other Delaware Valley program is envious of.
Though, in the end, St. Joseph’s Prep was right where it set out to be — playing in the PIAA Class 6A state championship for a fourth-straight year and winning for the third time, when the Hawks easily vanquished Central Dauphin, 35-13, on Dec. 7 at Hersheypark Stadium.
So, again, it’s no surprise that St. Joe’s Prep is PhillyVoice’s 2019 high school football Team of the Year. The Hawks went 12-2 this past season, winning their second-straight PIAA 6A state championship and third in the last four years. It marked the fifth overall state title in the last seven years for the Hawks (4A titles in 2013 and 2014, and 6A titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019).
Joining the Hawks on this pantheon of year-end accomplishments is Hawks’ junior quarterback Kyle McCord, who is PhillyVoice’s Player of the Year and Archbishop Wood coach Kyle Adkins as Coach of the Year.
St. Joe’s Prep was a team burgeoning with talent in August. In the end, the Hawks didn’t have McCord, the back-to-back Catholic League Red Division MVP for the last month of the season recovering from a knee injury, and Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who was lost for most of the season with a broken right arm. Trotter was playing at such a high level when he went out that he was arguably the best player in Pennsylvania.
First-year coach Tim Roken had to move around a lot. Personnel changes were made, the Hawks schemes took on different looks. Then, there was the PIAA District 12 Class 6A championship scare against powerful, and speedy Public League 6A champion Northeast (a 43-26 victory). There was the last-second heroics of Malik Cooper and Marvin Harrison Jr. in the Hawks’ overtime state semifinal 31-24 victory over Pittsburgh Central Catholic.
In the end, there were the Hawks holding aloft another state championship trophy in Hershey in December.
“This team had a lot of trust and believe in one another,” said Roken, who deserves a lot of credit for the success, too. “That starts with our staff and continuity of our staff. This season doesn’t happen without the seniors on this team, and without my coordinators, (offensive coordinator/offensive line coach) Tom Sugden and (defensive coordinator) Shawn Stratz, and my staff.
“You face the obstacles, you face the adversity, and it’s always how you handle those obstacles and that adversity. This team and this staff, we stayed poised, we stayed composed, and it brought us closer together. Regardless of being down 14-0 (against Northeast), or losing another one of our key guys, they came closer. Anytime this group felt attacked or threatened, they came closer.
“That’s what I’ll remember the most about this team.”
Cheltenham, Downingtown West, Northeast, Episcopal Academy, Williamstown (N.J.), St. Augustine Prep (N.J.) and Lenape (N.J) all merit consideration in this category.
For those in Pennsylvania complaining about the uneven playing field involving the private and public schools, that debate will continue. Last week, Dr. Robert A. Lombardi, Executive Director of the PIAA, stated in an exclusive discussion with PhillyVoice that there will be no breakup of the traditional PIAA football playoff system, which includes public and private schools competing against each other, unlike New Jersey, which has a public and “non-public” state championship.
To Dr. Lombardi, it is important to maintain a “true state champion.”
Of the 12 teams in this year’s PIAA six-classification championship, only three schools were private, St. Joe’s Prep, Archbishop Wood and Bishop Guilfoyle. Two of the three won: Prep in dominant fashion at 6A, and Wood on a last-second TD pass at 5A. Bishop Guilfoyle lost to Farrell, 10-7, in the competitive 1A championship.
There were a number of players who had amazing seasons this year, like Downingtown West’s Will Howard, or Cheltenham’s Jamir Barnes, or the Episcopal Academy’s Maurcus McDaniel, or Coatesville’s Ricky Ortega, or Willingboro’s Chris Long, or Williamstown’s Aaron Lewis, or Woodrow Wilson’s Fadil Diggs, or Penn Grove’s Nasir Robinson, or St. Joseph’s (N.J.) Jada Byers.
But none of those standout players faced the kind of schedule that St. Joe Prep’s Kyle McCord faced.
The 6-foot-3½, 210-pound junior quarterback threw for 2,399 yards and 31 touchdowns, against just five interceptions — in 10 games, in which he played one half of four of those games, with 25 of his 31 TDs coming in the first half of games.
McCord, who’s headed to Ohio State, watched the last four games of the season recovering from a knee injury. But that shouldn’t diminish the season he had, much like Carson Wentz deserved the MVP for the 2017 NFL season, despite missing the final three games with an injury during the Eagles’ Super Bowl season.
“Kyle’s special,” St. Joe Prep’s coach Tim Roken said. “He’s a big reason four our success. He loves the game. He just loves the game. It pained him to have to watch his brothers go out and win the state championship without him.
“But when Kyle was missing from the field, he still helped out Malik Cooper giving him advice, and he was at practice every day, talking to him every day about the things he saw. He can’t wait for 2020 to begin. His maturity grew, working in the weight room and with the receivers. Where Kyle really matured was being more of a vocal leader, and we allowed him to take more control of things on the field.”
It was a frustrating end for McCord, who made sure he stood aside last Saturday night when the team was posing for the group state championship pictures, standing in the background.
“I didn’t think I deserved to be in them, the seniors had to be up front,” McCord said. “I never missed practice before, but I made sure I wanted to be at practice every day with the team. I never missed a game before, and this experience made me appreciate every snap I take—whether it’s in practice or a game.
“I never realized how important football was to me before the injury, and that’s something positive I took from this. My ultimate goal was to win the state championship—and that’s what we did.”
McCord’s leadership role increased this season. He says that leadership blossomed more off the field.
“Early on, we struggled, but this year, we learned how to fight with our backs against the wall,” McCord said. “We had a lot of guys go down, but no matter what, we came back. That resiliency will carry on to next year. I can’t wait.”
Now, McCord is still playing for another team, Ohio State. He and Marvin Harrison Jr., another Buckeye commit, may think about making plans to go to the national championship game if the Buckeyes get there.
Ryan Nase did an amazing job at Cheltenham this year, driving the Panthers to an historical season and the PIAA Class 5A state championship game. Tim Roken inherited a stellar program from St. Joe Prep legendary coach Gabe Infante, then found himself piecing together a team again at the most important time of the year, after losing arguably his best defensive and offensive players to injury. St. Augustine Prep (N.J.) coach Pete Lancetta started the season 1-3, and rallied his team to beat powerhouses like Williamstown, St. Joseph’s (Hamm.) and into the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 playoffs.
But if there was one coaching job that stood out slightly above the rest, it had to be the job done by Archbishop Wood’s second-year coach Kyle Adkins, who directed the Vikings (11-3) to the PIAA Class 5A state championship with 32 players dressed, and finding players in the school halls to patch together a state-championship-caliber team — after losing his best player, tailback Tommy Santiago, who transferred out before the season.
“Kyle did an amazing job this year, he and that team deserved that state championship,” Prep’s Roken said. “For what he had, and what they did, Kyle deserves a ton of credit.”
Adkins converted a basketball player into a starting defensive end, grabbed a discard from the soccer team who won the state semifinals with a last-second field goal, and had faith in a lead tailback who fumbled twice in the 5A District 12 championship to make the most important play of the year.
Adkins pushed the right buttons at the right time.
This Wood team was not like “typical” Wood teams of the past.
Those power teams ran over everyone. This year’s offensive line may have weighed an average of 220 pounds. Still, Wood won its sixth state title in a 19-15 classic over District 1 champion Cheltenham last Friday night at Hersheypark Stadium. It marked Wood’s third 5A state championship in the last four season, and sixth state title overall (2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019)—which leads all Philadelphia-area programs.
“Our attitude never changed, our goal every year is to win the state championship,” Adkins said. “There were a lot of challenges this year. I really can’t any credit and I won’t. We have great skids, a great coaching staff and great athletes.
“It was a matter of putting the pieces together. We didn’t have the makeup of past Wood teams, and you have to adapt your system to what you have. You have to figure out what system fits the group of kids that you have, and we did that. We made changes until the last game of the year.
“We made changes week-to-week, and the kids bought into that. We didn’t have a selfish kid on our team.”
Adkins, 25, could be the youngest coach to ever win a PIAA state championship in football.
“What will always stick out to me was when Cheltenham took the lead in the state championship, we were down by four with four minutes left,” Adkins recalled. “Our guys came off the field and no one doubted we would come right back and score—and we hadn’t moved the ball the entire second half. There was no panic at all. That poise under pressure is what will always stay with me.”
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