Northeast Times

Friday Night Flights

— In foot­ball's open­ing week­end in the North­east, Frank­ford stood firm in a state­ment win on the road.

(Brad Lar­ris­on)

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With one second re­main­ing in the first half and the lights shin­ing brightly in­side Hat­boro-Hor­sham’s Hat­ter Sta­di­um on Fri­day even­ing, a Hail Mary pass threatened to de­rail 23 minutes and 59 seconds of Frank­ford’s hard work.

The 31-yard des­per­a­tion heave sliced Frank­ford’s lead to 20-13 at the break and gave the noisy crowd hope, which, in foot­ball, can be a de­fens­ive co­ordin­at­or’s worst night­mare.

But not for Juan Namnun.

Namnun, widely known as the man who has guided the Pi­on­eer base­ball team to three of its last five Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ships, runs the Frank­ford de­fense dur­ing foot­ball sea­son. Seated in the sta­di­um’s press box, far from Frank­ford’s side­line, Namnun had to feel like the lone­li­est man in the build­ing when the home team’s Hail Mary be­came an answered pray­er.

No wor­ries, though, be­cause Namnun still had half­time to find an an­swer.

“These sub­urb­an teams are so well-coached and full of such tal­ent that in or­der to play with them, we have to be will­ing to fo­cus on the little things first,” Namnun said after he could fi­nally breathe, fol­low­ing Dami­on Samuels’ third rush­ing touch­down, a 48-yard scamper with 48 seconds re­main­ing, giv­ing the Pi­on­eers a sea­son-open­ing 32-20 vic­tory. “We have to tackle really well to give our of­fense the best op­por­tun­ity to work. Our pre­par­a­tion con­sists of a whole lot of ‘gang tack­ling.’”

The concept is as simple as it sounds, and Namnun’s de­fense worked it to per­fec­tion in the second half. Any­time a play­er in Hat­boro’s (of the Sub­urb­an One League) run-happy of­fens­ive scheme touched the ball, three or four Frank­ford jer­seys con­verged to meet him, es­pe­cially seni­or de­fens­ive tackle Kadar Dav­is, who was every­where for the Pi­on­eers. After the game was over and the Pi­on­eers could glee­fully ex­hale, head coach Will Dog­gett tossed the game ball to a sur­prised Namnun, who told his huddled play­ers, “If our de­fense plays like that…if we play like that, then nobody is go­ing to beat us.”

Frank­ford, which is no stranger to play­ing on cratered, chalk­less Pub­lic League fields, did not get swept up in the pres­sure of play­ing in Hat­boro’s siz­able fa­cil­ity. The bleach­ers of the im­press­ive sta­di­um wer­en’t filled to ca­pa­city, but as soon as the sun dipped be­hind the clouds near the end of the first half, the game had a dra­mat­ic, “Fri­day Night Lights” feel to it. While bend­ing slightly, the Pi­on­eers nev­er broke.

Re­cord-set­ting seni­or quar­ter­back Tim Di­Gior­gio picked up right where he left off in his dy­nam­ite ju­ni­or cam­paign, com­plet­ing 11 of 15 passes for 229 yards and Frank­ford’s lone passing score, an 18-yard first quarter strike to tight end Den­zel Turbeville that knot­ted the score at sev­en. (His fa­vor­ite tar­get, seni­or Renz “Rodeo” Compton, had four huge grabs for 137 well-de­served yards and played sol­id on de­fense, too.) After this point, Frank­ford nev­er trailed again.

Di­Gior­gio was his nor­mal, sur­gic­al self, ex­hib­it­ing a calm de­mean­or in the huddle and pin­point ac­cur­acy that led to mis­take-free foot­ball. He didn’t sling the ball as much as usu­al, but on this night it didn’t mat­ter, as the Pi­on­eer rush­ing at­tack kept the ball in the of­fense’s hands long enough to ward off a de­term­ined Hat­ter squad. Frank­ford rushed 29 times for 190 yards and three touch­downs (all by the ju­ni­or Samuels, who was fant­ast­ic), and Di­Gior­gio, per usu­al, did the rest.

“Tim is very fun to watch,” Namnun said. “Our of­fens­ive coaches (Dave Ce­bu­lar, Dom Doyle and Rasheed Muhammad) do a spec­tac­u­lar job co­ordin­at­ing the of­fense so I do feel a little pres­sure keep­ing us in games. I was ex­tremely sur­prised with the hon­or of the game ball be­cause I see my­self as just one wheel in the cog. Will could have eas­ily tossed that game ball to any oth­er coach and they would have de­served it just as much, if not more.”

In a sea­son with huge ex­pect­a­tions, Fri­day night’s game was one the Pi­on­eers had to have. It had been nearly 10 months since the game no Frank­ford play­er or coach could for­get, the 20-13 cham­pi­on­ship up­set last Novem­ber at the hands of rival George Wash­ing­ton that robbed the team of something they felt they de­served. With sev­er­al new faces on both sides of the ball, Frank­ford nev­er looked in­tim­id­ated by the en­vir­on­ment, which fea­tured a vo­cal crowd and many ques­tion­able pen­alty calls that gen­er­ously kept the Hat­ters in the game.

“The neat thing to watch from my vant­age was that at no point did the new­er guys look in­to the stands or the op­pon­ents and show any sign of in­tim­id­a­tion,” Namnun said. “In years past, we may have had one or two guys be caught up in the ‘city versus sub­urbs’ as­pect. With this team, it was just an­oth­er op­pon­ent. The new guys brought a fresh en­ergy we hadn’t seen in awhile.

“In the last few years, we’ve pur­posely taken our team in­to that at­mo­sphere,” he con­tin­ued. “Be­ing in a situ­ation where it feels like it’s truly us against lit­er­ally thou­sands helps us pre­pare for oth­er hos­tile en­vir­on­ments throughout the year.”

Ad­ded Dog­gett: “The play­ers have put the work in over the last two weeks, and it showed. We looked good, but there are some areas for im­prove­ment. The team and coaches made ad­just­ments and played to­geth­er.”

It was a suc­cess­ful first test for the Pi­on­eers, but things will get harder be­fore they get easi­er. In an ef­fort to make sure last year’s cham­pi­on­ship game res­ult does not re­peat it­self, Dog­gett has es­pe­cially “sched­uled up” this sea­son to fur­ther test his team’s mettle. The next two weeks, Frank­ford will again be on the road against bru­tal com­pet­i­tion — first it will be sub­urb­an power Penns­bury, (also of Sub­urb­an One), fol­lowed by reign­ing state cham­pi­on Arch­bish­op Wood of the Cath­ol­ic League, a team that ob­lit­er­ated any and all com­pet­i­tion on the road to a state title in 2011.

The design of the sched­ule was car­ried out with a pur­pose. This time around, when league teams like Wash­ing­ton, Ger­man­town, Cent­ral and North­east come call­ing, they will have noth­ing to throw at Frank­ford that the Pi­on­eers haven’t already seen, a com­fort­ing fact for the team’s play­ers, coaches and fans, who were plenty loud in their own right in mak­ing the trip to Hor­sham. (One es­pe­cially vo­cal fan yelled “Cheat­ers!” at the ref­er­ees for much of the second half.)

For a con­ver­ted base­ball guy, Namnun loved every minute of the ex­per­i­ence, even if he did have to sit all by him­self on the oth­er side of the sta­di­um.

“My fa­vor­ite part about be­ing on the staff, aside from the guys I work with, is that I have the op­por­tun­ity to fo­cus on one as­pect of the game and really dive in­to it 100 per­cent,” he said. “Will has shown enough con­fid­ence in me and al­lowed me to do what I do best. He knows I love to break down film and pre­pare a de­fens­ive game plan.

“I ap­pre­ci­ate the con­fid­ence he has put in­to our whole staff. He has totally al­lowed our pro­gram to evolve in­to something that could be very spe­cial.” ••

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You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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