Northeast Times

Eagles claim title crown

George Wash­ing­ton’s Melvin Gonzales, Kend­ale Tru­itt and Ha­keem Sill­man cel­eb­rate a de­fens­ive stop dur­ing the Pub­lic League Class AAAA cham­pi­on­ship foot­ball game against Frank­ford. Wash­ing­ton won 20-13 at North­east High School on Sat­urday, Novem­ber 13, 2011. Kev­in Cook / for the Times

In Ron Co­hen’s pre­vi­ous 26 sea­sons as head foot­ball coach at George Wash­ing­ton High School, he prob­ably could count on one hand how many times the Eagles had gone in­to a big Pub­lic League show­down as the un­der­dog. 

However, in year No. 27, a funny thing happened: For most of this 2011 sea­son, the Eagles played the role of un­der­dog. Co­hen’s team had gradu­ated 18 schol­ar­ship play­ers from last year’s group and came in­to this sea­son without a true iden­tity. They were young, and as a res­ult, most city ex­perts and pro­gnost­ic­at­ors said this would be a year to for­get for the Eagles. 

Yet, on Sat­urday even­ing at North­east High School, after all was said and done in a truly wacky sea­son, Wash­ing­ton stood alone em­bra­cing a fa­mil­i­ar role — Pub­lic League cham­pi­on.

It was Frank­ford that came in­to the game as the sup­posed team of des­tiny. The Pi­on­eers had won sev­en straight, most not­ably a 21-20 thrill­er over Wash­ing­ton in this same sta­di­um three weeks earli­er, a con­test that had crowned Frank­ford as reg­u­lar-sea­son cham­pi­on of the Pub­lic League. They were armed with a quar­ter­back in Tim Di­Gior­gio, who had thrown for more yards than any Pub­lic League QB in a single sea­son in the league’s his­tory. It was sup­posed to be their time, which made the 20-13 Wash­ing­ton vic­tory all the more spe­cial for its long­time coach.

“I think the best word to de­scribe this team would be ‘pro­gress,’” said Co­hen, who won his 12th Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship with the Eagles. “We star­ted out as a group of in­di­vidu­als, and in Au­gust things were kind of a mess. We had a lot of holes, but to our cred­it we came to­geth­er and be­came a team. 

“Even more than that, we be­came a fam­ily, and that’s why I’m so proud of this group in par­tic­u­lar over any oth­er group that I’ve coached,” he con­tin­ued. “All the news­pa­pers and crit­ics and oth­er play­ers and coaches on oth­er teams may have thought we were washed up, but we proved them wrong.”

For most of the night on Sat­urday, it was clear that this was a dif­fer­ent Wash­ing­ton team than the one the Pi­on­eers had edged in the reg­u­lar sea­son. Sure, the Eagles played far from a per­fect game, but they pos­sessed a cer­tain swag­ger that hadn’t been seen be­fore. A tal­en­ted but of­ten in­con­sist­ent de­fense rose to the oc­ca­sion and pres­sured Di­Gior­gio in­to his worst game of the sea­son; and, as usu­al, a spotty of­fense led by star run­ning back Ha­keem Sill­man did just enough to win.

After a re­l­at­ively un­event­ful first half, a 30-yard Dav­id Gav­rilov touch­down pass (his only com­ple­tion of the game) to Rene Vil­la­fane just be­fore half­time put the Eagles up 13-7 and set the stage for a dra­mat­ic second half. 

Frank­ford tied the score on its first drive of the second half, as Di­Gior­gio (13-for-28, 182 yards) found run­ning back Kelly John­son for a 20-yard touch­down pass (Di­Gior­gio’s only one of the game) to knot the score at 13. Later in the quarter, the Pi­on­eers seemed poised to take the lead be­fore the wheels fell off.

First, run­ning back Mike Brown fumbled a carry at the Wash­ing­ton 1-yard line that was re­covered for a touch­back. Then, on the next drive to open the fourth quarter, a dis­astrous mis­com­mu­nic­a­tion turned a punt from their own end zone in­to an in­com­plete pass, al­low­ing the Eagles to take over on the Frank­ford 3-yard line. 

(After the game, Pi­on­eers coach Will Dog­gett re­mained dumb­foun­ded why the snap landed in tight end Aaron Al­lis­on’s hands in­stead of in punter Eric Salguero’s.) Sill­man scored on a short run two plays later, and Wash­ing­ton held off Frank­ford the rest of the way.

“Those were two huge mo­ments in the game,” Co­hen said of Frank­ford’s bad second-half breaks. “I’ve been around long enough to know that some­times strange things hap­pen out there. These are high school kids, and some­times they just make mis­takes. Thank good­ness we were on the right side of things to­night.”

As for Sill­man, he still man­aged to rack up 141 yards and two touch­downs on the ground des­pite be­ing con­tained for most of the game. He had just two long bursts of 43 and 38 yards, but he still man­aged to leave an im­print on the game that al­lowed Wash­ing­ton to de­part the sta­di­um as vic­tors. Sill­man’s eye-pop­ping num­bers con­tin­ue to grow — he has rushed for 1,695 yards and 27 touch­downs on the sea­son.

“We lost to these guys a few weeks ago, and we hadn’t for­got­ten it,” Sill­man said. “We worked so hard to make sure we got back in­to this po­s­i­tion to see them again, and once we got here we just wanted to come out and out­work them. We knew if we did that then we would bring the cham­pi­on­ship back where it be­longs.”

Sill­man and his fel­low seni­ors es­pe­cially rel­ished this tri­umph after fall­ing short in the Pub­lic League title game a year ago. While every­body seemed fo­cused on Di­Gior­gio and the Pi­on­eers, the Eagles came to­geth­er be­hind the scenes and be­came a team of des­tiny that nobody saw com­ing.

“We wanted to come to­geth­er as a team and prove every­body wrong,” Sill­man said. “It’s so ex­cit­ing to be able to win coach Co­hen an­oth­er one of these be­fore I get out of here. We came to­geth­er as friends and we’re leav­ing as a fam­ily.”

Now, Wash­ing­ton gets to play at least one more game that car­ries some sig­ni­fic­ance — the Eagles will meet La Salle on Sat­urday af­ter­noon in the city cham­pi­on­ship game. The Ex­plorers ar­gu­ably are one of the top teams in the city, if not the en­tire state, and re­gard­less of the out­come, the Eagles will en­joy their time there, Co­hen said.

After all, ac­cord­ing to every­body else, they wer­en’t even sup­posed to be here to be­gin with.

“I really am proud of these play­ers and coaches, be­cause this was a dif­fer­ent kind of sea­son for them,” Co­hen said. “When people doubted them, they just used it as a driv­ing force and worked harder. It’s a happy end­ing for us, and I can say with cer­tainty that we de­served it. 

“We’re the Pub­lic League cham­pi­ons, and nobody can take that away from us.” ••

Re­port­er Ed Mor­rone can be reached at Ed­ward.mor­rone@gmail.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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