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.
“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.firstname.lastname@example.org