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.” ••EndFragment