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.firstname.lastname@example.org