Scoreless through four full quarters, it almost seemed appropriate that the newest chapter of the ancient Northeast-Central Thanksgiving rivalry would be decided, in part, by a coin toss.
In 48 minutes of regulation on a bitterly cold morning, neither team could crack the scoring column. Not only that, but the Vikings and Lancers barely threatened to sniff the end zone in either half, which meant the oldest continuous high school Thanksgiving football game in the country would be decided in overtime.
Overtime in high school football, much like its college counterpart, has a predetermined formula. Instead of one team kicking off to the other with a timed clock (as is the case in regulation), a coin toss decides possession, then the ball is automatically placed at the defense’s 10-yard line. Central won the toss and opted to get the ball second; the Lancers held Northeast out of the end zone, forcing the Vikings into a 20-yard field goal try that gave Northeast a brief 3-0 lead. Central running back Walter Pegues, who was everywhere in this one, carried the ball nine yards to the 1 on the Lancers’ first play, then sealed a 6-3 victory on the next play with a short touchdown run.
Just like that, the Lancers won their first Thanksgiving contest since 2004, giving Northeast first-year head coach Phil Gormley an 0-1 mark after previously having served as a Vikings assistant. The Vikings still hold an all-time lead in the series, 56-52-10.
“As I said last week, the team that made the least amount of mistakes would win, and unfortunately that wasn’t us,” said Gormley, who donned khaki shorts on the sidelines despite sub-freezing temperatures. “I certainly thought it would be close … of course I didn’t expect 0-0 through four quarters, but we just made too many mistakes and they were able to throw the ball a little better than we were.”
Due to injuries and academic eligibility issues, Gormley used his third starting quarterback of the season, sophomore Hakim Coles. He threw just three times, completing one pass for seven yards, while Central QB Jeff Coplin went 6-for-13 for 51 yards. Both teams, as expected, ran the ball a ton: Northeast junior Asa Manley bruised his way to 72 yards on 25 carries, while Pegues went for 75 yards on 18 rushes, including the game’s only touchdown. Both players were on the field for every play, as each is also heavily involved on defense and special teams (Manley even serves as the Vikings’ punter).
As it progressed, the game had the feeling that whoever got into the end zone first — Manley or Pegues — would be the team to win the game. That turned out to be a correct assumption. Pegues’ score was the 39th of his career (19 rushing, seven receiving, four on kick returns and nine on punt bring backs), and he finished his career with 2,225 yards from scrimmage.
“I think most people don’t appreciate how hard it is to run the ball that many times and take that kind of punishment on such a cold day,” Gormley said. “To run the ball 20 or 25 times in 25-degree weather and hitting the ground on every play like they did, that’s not easy. They both did a decent job of running hard and protecting the ball. Basically, they just had one more play than we did, and it cost us the game.”
As Gormley explained, losing the overtime coin toss completely changes the approach and plan of attack for a coaching staff. By way of deferring possession, Central’s defense forced Gormley to take the short field goal attempt instead of going for it on fourth down, because if the attempt was no good, the Lancers would have had to “just line up in the middle and kick it.”
“It affects play-calling,” Gormley said. “By getting the ball first, you know you have to come away with points. Their philosophy then becomes, ‘Score a touchdown to win.’ They did a great job to score when they needed to, and they played a great game.”
And though Gormley admitted the overtime loss “ruined my day for sure,” he did his best to take the high road. Though Northeast lost, the Vikings are an extremely young team that won’t lose a heck of a lot to graduation. All-Public defenders Gladimir Paul (DE) and Steven Rowe (LB) are juniors, as is Manley, who ended the season with 812 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
“They’re already excited to get back at it, and this will serve as motivation for next season,” Gormley said. “We made sure to keep our guys on the field to watch Central celebrate to burn that spot in their memories. I told them that I think it’s important to step away from football for the next month to mentally recharge. But our weight room opens on Jan. 2, and I expect it to be full.”
It was a season of more highs than lows for Gormley in his return to Northeast. Despite finishing with an overall record of 5-7, the Vikings went 3-2 in the Public League, won a first-round playoff game over Lincoln and came within a whisker of upsetting George Washington in the postseason semifinals.
After Jim Adams resigned following just one year as Northeast’s head coach, Gormley was the third man in three seasons to take the job (Chris Riley, who still serves as Northeast’s athletic director, held the position before Adams). If anything, Gormley brings some stability to the program, and now can work on improving his young players by continuing to build a new foundation at the school. The Vikings, who last won a Public League championship in 2010 under Riley, hope to be back in that mix in 2014, as well as wanting to start a new win streak over Central (7-5).
“This is a very special game, no question, and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to come back to take this job,” said Gormley, who was the head coach at Jenkintown High School before returning to Northeast. “The hoopla for it, you just don’t get that type of environment for high school football games. It’s exciting for our kids and the alumni, and I’m real disappointed we didn’t win. But in my opinion it’s the best high school game there is, period.
“When we came in this year with this staff, pretty much everybody was new. It might take us a couple years before we get this thing to where we want it to be, but the kids took that first step this year in buying in to the expectations we had for them. It was a positive step in the right direction, and we can’t wait to regroup in January and get after it again.” ••