Building a foundation

Seni­or quar­ter­back Stephane Smith is the first four-year varsity starter in Samuel Fels foot­ball his­tory.

Just by show­ing up this sea­son, Stephane Smith made his­tory.

Of course, the Samuel Fels High School quar­ter­back — the first and only four-year varsity starter in Pan­thers’ his­tory — has done much more than show up. He has helped con­tin­ue a tra­di­tion just six sea­sons in the mak­ing. He has helped es­tab­lish Samuel Fels on the grid­iron.

“I’m very happy to be part of such a great team and help build the tra­di­tion at Fels,” said the seni­or. “I feel good about it. It mo­tiv­ates me to con­tin­ue to be the best I can be­cause I want to step up and be everything that is ex­pec­ted of me.”

The Pan­thers are off to a shaky start this sea­son — they’re cur­rently 1-2 in the Pub­lic League Class AAAA Gold Di­vi­sion. They fell to power­house George Wash­ing­ton, 32-8, at North­east High School’s Charles Mar­tin Me­mori­al Sta­di­um on Fri­day af­ter­noon.

“We have a lot of ups and downs, but we don’t come at each oth­er,” Smith said. “We win as a team and we lose as a team. We work to­geth­er and pick each oth­er up when we’re down.”

The first half of Fri­day’s game ac­tion was a re­l­at­ively close call on the score­board. George Wash­ing­ton seni­or run­ning back Ha­keem Sill­man struck first, rush­ing for a touch­down in the first six minutes of play. Wash­ing­ton ad­ded three more points with a field goal late in the quarter.

Less than one minute in­to the second, Fels answered back with help from seni­or wide re­ceiv­er Ni­jay Kelly, who caught a 42-yard touch­down pass from Smith. The Pan­thers went for two points and suc­ceeded, with Kelly grabbing that pass too.

By half­time — des­pite a whop­ping four turnovers in the  game — the vic­tory was still up for grabs.

That didn’t last long.

George Wash­ing­ton re­turned with a ven­geance, scor­ing two touch­downs with­in two minutes. Rene Vil­la­fane in­ter­cep­ted a pass by Smith and re­turned it for a TD. Two plays later, Fels fumbled and Wash­ing­ton’s Shaquan Al­len grabbed the ball and dashed down­field for an­oth­er six points. The fi­nal nail in the coffin was hammered with six minutes re­main­ing, when Sill­man ran for an­oth­er touch­down.

Fi­nal score: George Wash­ing­ton, 32; Samuel Fels, 8.

“Six turnovers was the dif­fer­ence. We spot­ted them twenty-five points,” said Fels coach Bill Har­rigan, re­fer­ring to his squad’s two in­ter­cep­tions and four fumbles. “Easy turnovers on short fields — you’re nev­er go­ing to win a foot­ball game like that.

“This is the second week in a row that we played de­cent teams in games that I feel — and I think the rest of the kids feel — we should have won,” he ad­ded. “It should have been games that were with­in our grasp, but six turnovers, you’re not go­ing to over­come that un­til we get bet­ter ball se­cur­ity.”

Fels’ Ni­jay Kelly caught six passes for 86 yards and scored the Pan­thers’ eight points. Eric Jones grabbed two in­ter­cep­tions. Smith com­pleted nine of 18 at­tempts for 167 yards and one touch­down.

On Wash­ing­ton’s side, Sill­man was the star, rush­ing for 218 yards and two touch­downs. Vil­la­fane caught five passes for 68 yards and a TD. Ju­ni­or quar­ter­back Dav­id Gav­rilov com­pleted nine of 13 at­tempts for 106 yards, while fel­low QB Al Au­gustine was 0-for-4.

“We could have done way bet­ter than we did. We had a lot of turnovers,” said Smith. “De­fens­ively, we per­formed very well. Of­fens­ively, we got to work on it. We’ll be bet­ter for next week.”

The Pan­thers will travel to Chester for a non-league game on Sat­urday, then re­turn to Charles Mar­tin Me­mori­al Sta­di­um the fol­low­ing week to face the Pub­lic League’s de­fend­ing champs, North­east High School. 

This sea­son, Smith has com­pleted 11 of 21 at­tempts for 233 yards and a pair of touch­downs. He took over the QB job fol­low­ing the gradu­ation of last year’s star toss­er, Tyree Ruck­er, who guided the Pan­thers to a 6-0 league re­cord. Dur­ing a Thanks­giv­ing Day game, he passed for 196 yards, boost­ing his sea­son total to 1,994 — a new Pub­lic League re­cord. 

“When I first came to Fels, I could tell that they had a good foot­ball team, a good pro­gram, and I knew that I wanted to be part of it,” said Smith. “I love the game of foot­ball. I’ve al­ways loved it.”

Smith hopes to play in col­lege next year.

“Stephane is a great kid. He’s our first four-year starter here at Fels. He’s grown a lot, not just phys­ic­ally but as a play­er and a per­son,” said Har­rigan. “He’ll do any­thing that we ask of him. He’s filled so many roles for us. I’m al­ways happy with his per­form­ance. He al­ways gives his best.” ••

Ed­it­or Melissa Yerkov can be reached at my­

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