Running down a dream

Wash­ing­ton’s Ha­keem Sill­man runs up­field against Ger­man­town dur­ing a Pub­lic League Class AAAA Play­off Semi­final game at North­east High School on Sat­urday, Novem­ber 5, 2011. Wash­ing­ton won 36-20. Kev­in Cook / for the Times

For 24 minutes on Sat­urday night at North­east High School, all seemed to be lost for the George Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team. 

A per­en­ni­al power in the Phil­adelphia Pub­lic League, the Eagles were on the cusp of a hu­mi­li­at­ing exit from the post­season semi­finals.

The gutsy call of a trick play changed everything.

Trail­ing 20-7 at half­time and watch­ing his team’s quest for an­oth­er Pub­lic League title slip through the cracks, head coach Ron Co­hen op­ted to roll the dice and go for an on­side kick to open the second half. 

Mis­sion ac­com­plished. 

Mo­mentum swung. 

“It was a last-minute de­cision that we didn’t even talk about in the lock­er room,” Co­hen said. “We de­cided to call it right down on the field be­fore the second half star­ted. It’s good when it works, I’ll tell you that much. It was a mo­mentum changer for sure, and it def­in­itely pumped our guys up and got their heads back in­to the game.”

Paced by seni­or run­ning back Ha­keem Sill­man’s ex­plos­ive second half, Wash­ing­ton scored the fi­nal 29 points of the game en route to a 36-20 vic­tory over Ger­man­town that will set up a Sat­urday show­down with Frank­ford to de­cide the Pub­lic League cham­pi­on. Frank­ford de­feated the Eagles on Oct. 22 on a touch­down with 31 seconds to go to win the reg­u­lar-sea­son Pub crown.

Wash­ing­ton sure took a round­about road to reach this point, pro­du­cing a bru­tal second quarter that in­cluded two punts and two turnovers. Sill­man fumbled an ex­change from quar­ter­back Alf­onzo Au­gustine, was stopped for neg­at­ive yard­age three times, and nearly yiel­ded a touch­down to a Ger­man­town re­ceiv­er while play­ing de­fens­ive back. The sloppy play res­ul­ted in two Bears touch­downs.

“I was real down on my­self (after the second quarter),” Sill­man ad­mit­ted. “But as a lead­er it’s my job to right the ship. We came out flat and played with no emo­tion, but we pulled to­geth­er. The on­side kick was a huge play for us. We needed that big time.”

Fol­low­ing the on­side kick, Wash­ing­ton took over on Ger­man­town’s 40-yard line and handed the ball six straight times to Sill­man, who bobbed and weaved his way to the 1-yard-line be­fore backup quar­ter­back Dav­id Gav­rilov ran in for the score.

A quick three-and-out for Ger­man­town and fa­vor­able field po­s­i­tion for Wash­ing­ton set the stage for the next drive, which las­ted just one play. Sill­man rushed up the gut for a 34-yard score. The Eagles run­ner (22 car­ries, 161 yards, three touch­downs) ad­ded a 35-yard score on Wash­ing­ton’s next pos­ses­sion to put the Eagles up 29-20. 

It has been a sea­son for the re­cord books for Sill­man, who has rushed for 1,544 yards and an eye-pop­ping 25 touch­downs. His nearly 8.5-yards-per-carry av­er­age have Wash­ing­ton on the door­step of an­oth­er title (the Eagles will par­ti­cip­ate in the cham­pi­on­ship game for the 11th time in 12 years).

“Ha­keem is a spe­cial kid,” Co­hen said. “He’s a spe­cial young man, and I think his best foot­ball is still ahead of him. He’s built strong and he’s so quick. He’s a bull that will run right through you. Guys like him don’t come along too of­ten.”

Sill­man is the lead­er of a re­l­at­ively young Wash­ing­ton team, one that has had the im­pos­ing chal­lenge of fol­low­ing the 2010 group that had 18 play­ers re­ceive col­lege foot­ball schol­ar­ships. The in­ex­per­i­ence of this year’s team has shown at times — the Eagles have played from be­hind in sev­er­al of their wins. 

However, des­pite some grow­ing pains, Co­hen’s bunch has ral­lied to a 7-2 re­cord, the only ser­i­ous blem­ish be­ing that last-second loss to Frank­ford. 

“I al­ways tell the kids, how good you are in Decem­ber means a heck of a lot more than how good you were in Septem­ber,” Co­hen said. “They’re happy for the op­por­tun­ity to play, and every­one is buy­ing in­to what we’ve got go­ing on over here. They’ve been a pleas­ure to coach.”

Of course, the jour­ney to this point won’t qual­i­fy as a fairy tale un­less the Eagles de­liv­er their story­book end­ing. They must get through scorch­ing-hot Frank­ford, a team that has won sev­en straight. 

The Pi­on­eers are led by ju­ni­or quar­ter­back Tim Di­Gior­gio, who has thrown for 1,825 yards and 25 touch­downs (he passed for a sea­son-high 304 yards in the win over Wash­ing­ton). 

“We’ve got to be more phys­ic­al with their of­fens­ive line and get to their quar­ter­back if we want to win,” Sill­man said. “We have the con­fid­ence in our de­fens­ive line to cre­ate pres­sure and show him (Di­Gior­gio) some things that he hasn’t seen be­fore.”

The game two weeks ago quickly turned in­to a bruis­ing tug-of-war match, and both sides can ex­pect an­oth­er fierce battle. Only this time, Wash­ing­ton hopes the res­ult is dif­fer­ent.

“Frank­ford is a great team all across the board, and I know they’ll be ready for us,” Co­hen said. “If you have to get up for a game like this, then you just need to check your men­tal­ity. It’ll be two very tal­en­ted groups fight­ing for something they want. It’s a great rivalry that should pro­duce an amaz­ing game. I just hope we don’t need those fi­nal thirty-one seconds this time around.”

And just for good meas­ure, Sill­man took a mo­ment to as­sure the Wash­ing­ton faith­ful that the Eagles will be ready to go come Sat­urday at 4 p.m. 

“With the way we’re feel­ing, we’re ready to play them right now,” he said. “The seni­ors on this team don’t want to lose, and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that we don’t.” ••

Re­port­er Ed Mor­rone can be reached at Ed­ward.mor­

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