‘This one is for Polly’

Cham­pi­ons: Frank­ford cel­eb­rates its first Pub­lic League foot­ball title since 2006. AL­BERT SCHELL / FOR THE TIMES

— With head coach Will Dog­gett away tend­ing to his gravely ill moth­er, his Frank­ford team won a title for them both.

In the mo­ments be­fore Sat­urday night’s cham­pi­on­ship Pub­lic League foot­ball game between Frank­ford and George Wash­ing­ton, one thing was clear — some­body was miss­ing.

And not just any­body; no, it was ar­gu­ably the most im­port­ant mem­ber of the Frank­ford foot­ball fam­ily, the ar­chi­tect, who, in just his second year at the pro­gram’s helm, had brought cham­pi­on­ship-caliber play back to a high school that so des­per­ately longed for it.

Head coach Will Dog­gett and his fa­mil­i­ar khaki shorts, black work boots and white goat­ee were nowhere to be found, and the show had to go on. The former Frank­ford as­sist­ant who had wanted so badly to be part of this mo­ment had rushed home to his nat­ive Louisi­ana to be with his gravely ill moth­er, Polly, in her fi­nal mo­ments. She died that same day.

Dog­gett’s ab­sence was a gut-punch to a team that had so heav­ily re­lied on his calm­ing pres­ence on the side­line. And that made the mo­ments fol­low­ing Frank­ford’s 30-16 cham­pi­on­ship vic­tory that much more up­lift­ing.

When it was over, de­fens­ive co­ordin­at­or and act­ing head coach Juan Namnun marched his team to­ward the west end zone at North­east’s Charles Mar­tin Sta­di­um, pulled out his cell phone, tapped a few but­tons and told every­one to hush.

After a brief pause, a voice picked up on the oth­er end of the line. It was Dog­gett.

“Hey, Dog­gett, we’ve got something to tell you … ‘You’re a cham­pi­on!’” Namnun shouted as the team erup­ted in­to cheers. 

Dog­gett’s re­ac­tion couldn’t be seen, but odds are the usu­ally poker-faced coach al­lowed him­self a well-de­served smile. 

Namnum, a Frank­ford alum who has won three league titles in five years as the school’s base­ball coach, was pre­pared, as were fel­low as­sist­ants/Pi­on­eer alumni Rasheed Muhammad, Domin­ic Doyle and Dave Ce­bu­lar. Namnun had found out about Dog­gett’s im­pend­ing ab­sence on Thursday, and the head coach broke the news of his moth­er’s fail­ing health to his team at Fri­day’s prac­tice be­fore shut­tling off to Louisi­ana. 

From there, all that was left to do was play foot­ball, something Frank­ford was ready to do. In Dog­gett’s ab­sence, the nor­mally of­fens­ive-minded Pi­on­eers used a swarm­ing Namnun de­fense (five turnovers, one safety) to jump out to a 23-0 lead. When Wash­ing­ton closed the gap to 23-16 early in the fourth quarter, Frank­ford re­spon­ded with a clutch spe­cial teams play and a con­tro­ver­sial de­fens­ive stand to close out their rivals, who had beaten the Pi­on­eers on this very field one year ago for the Pub­lic League crown.

“Re­gard­less of our suc­cess in base­ball, Frank­ford is a foot­ball high school, and I’m very proud to be a part of that,” Namnun said. “These kids worked so hard all year to be here today. We wanted to change his­tory from last year. This one is for Polly, for Coach Dog­gett and for every­one back at the school and in the neigh­bor­hood. It was more than just el­ev­en of us on the field to­night.”

From the get go, there was no doubt the Pi­on­eers seemed to have some ex­tra pep in their step on this night. 

First, it was a per­fect 32-yard pass from quar­ter­back Tim Di­Gior­gio to Brandon Jack less than four minutes in to stake Frank­ford to an 8-0 lead. A snap over Wash­ing­ton punter Jake Wright’s head through the back of the end zone made it 10-0 early in the second, then ju­ni­or run­ning back Dami­on Samuels’ 64-yard touch­down scamper three minutes later in­creased the lead to 17-0.

Ju­ni­or Mar­quis Po­ston’s 12-yard fumble re­turn (off a Kadar Jones strip at the Wash­ing­ton line of scrim­mage) just six seconds later to make it 23-0 made it seem like the rout was on. But two touch­down passes from Wash­ing­ton’s Dave Gav­rilov to Shaquon Al­len cut the de­fi­cit to 23-16 early in the fourth.

After the speedy Po­ston downed a Prince Cooper punt at the Wash­ing­ton 1, the stingy Pi­on­eers de­fense wreaked hav­oc on the op­pos­ing of­fense as it had done all night. After two short runs got the Eagles to the 4, Gav­rilov dropped back and found seni­or Rene Vil­la­fane, but Po­ston jumped the route and snagged the ball near the 10. A col­li­sion with Vil­la­fane dis­lodged the ball as Po­ston hit the turf, caus­ing mass con­fu­sion on both sides. Was it an in­com­ple­tion? A fumble? Play­ers on both sides stood around star­ing at the ball, and with no whistle blown, Frank­ford’s An­thony Wright-Down­ing scooped up the loose ball and trot­ted six yards in­to the end zone for a touch­down. The of­fi­cials con­ferred, and much to an apo­plect­ic Vil­la­fane and Wash­ing­ton’s chag­rin, the call was up­held.

Touch­down Frank­ford. Game over. 

For the first time in six years, the Pi­on­eers were back atop the Pub­lic League foot­ball world.

“When Will told the team, the emo­tion on their face said, ‘We can’t have him come back and not give the trophy to him,’” Muhammad said. “Every play, every second of that game we had him on our minds. We’re a fam­ily. He gave me a shot, and I love him like a fath­er.”

The two play­ers in­volved in Frank­ford’s fi­nal touch­down con­curred.

“We wanted to be there for him dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time,” Wright-Down­ing said.

“When we were able to shout and cel­eb­rate on the field when he was on the phone, it felt great,” Po­ston ad­ded. “That was the kind of phone call he needed to hear, and I am so happy we were able to make it hap­pen for him.”

By vir­tue of the cham­pi­on­ship win, Frank­ford is al­lowed at least two more games, mean­ing Dog­gett still has some time left with this bunch. First up will be this week­end’s Dis­trict 12 city title game against heav­ily favored La Salle be­fore clos­ing it out with a Thanks­giv­ing Day morn­ing con­test with Samuel Fels.

A hoarse Namnun (“I sound like this be­cause I was down here in­stead of up there,” he said, in­dic­at­ing his usu­al perch high up in the press box) said Dog­gett was an­ti­cip­at­ing be­ing back on the side­line for the La Salle game after he was fin­ished tend­ing to his fam­ily af­fairs back home.

“It will be com­fort­ing to have him back,” said Namnun, who, along with Muhammad, re­ceived a cel­eb­rat­ory Gat­o­rade bath in Dog­gett’s stead. “You only have one mom. He made his de­cision, and we’re proud of him. We did this to­night for him, and for Polly.”

“For him to be­lieve in us the way he did …” Muhammad said. “Everything we do is for him.”

Dog­gett and his vaunted spread at­tack took over for long­time coach Mike Capri­otti and his ‘Wing-T’ of­fense, which had been used at Frank­ford since 1965, be­fore last sea­son. The res­ults were im­me­di­ately felt, as Di­Gior­gio threw for 2,357 yards and 30 touch­downs; however, Wash­ing­ton had the last laugh, win­ning a cham­pi­on­ship thrill­er littered with cru­cial Pi­on­eer mis­takes.

Not this time. 

Though a banged-up Di­Gior­gio’s num­bers were far more ped­es­tri­an in 2012 (1,187 yards, nine TDs), he made enough big plays to of­fet his three in­ter­cep­tions and deny Ron Co­hen his 13th cham­pi­on­ship in 28 years as Wash­ing­ton’s coach. On the way, Di­Gior­gio had plenty of help from Samuels and Quin­ton El­lis in the back­field, as well as a stout of­fens­ive line and Den­zel Turbeville, Renz Compton and Wydell Compton’s steady hands as wideouts.

And of course there was Namnun’s de­fense, which played so well in 2012 des­pite nev­er get­ting the cred­it it de­served. In this game, de­fense really did win a cham­pi­on­ship.

“We wanted to show more ag­gres­sion, we wanted to swarm them,” Namnun said. 

On this night — and this en­tire sea­son — Frank­ford was the bet­ter team. In­clud­ing the post­season, the Pi­on­eers won all sev­en of their league games, in­clud­ing two over the reign­ing champs. 

 “We just got it done, and we got it done to­geth­er,” Namnun said. 

Be­fore he raced to catch Frank­ford’s ju­bil­ant bus back home, it was Muhammad who had the night’s last word.

“We were miss­ing a piece, but we still had to get it done,” said Muhammad, who be­came the fi­nal as­sist­ant on the Pi­on­eer coach­ing staff to win a cham­pi­on­ship as both a play­er and coach at the school.

“It’s spe­cial, man … it’s a beau­ti­ful thing. Fam­ily is what we’ve preached all year to these kids. One heart­beat, one team … that’s our motto.” ••

Sports ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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