A battle for the ages

  • Quinton Ellis (left) and Damion Samuels were integral parts of the Frankford offense, defense and special teams in 2013. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

  • Shareef Miller and the Frankford defense was spectacular from start to finish against the Prep. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

  • Oh so close: Frankford senior Quinton Ellis moves with the ball as he is chased by Rhawnhurst native Vince Moffett. Despite a valiant effort in the District 12 Class AAAA city championship football game, Frankford fell to Catholic League champion St. Joseph’s Prep, 10-7. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

In the ori­gin­al Rocky film, the tit­u­lar hero fights as a be­loved un­der­dog, head­ing in­to a heavy­weight bout with the much more power­ful Apollo Creed that nobody gives Rocky Bal­boa much of a chance to win.

In the end, Rocky in­deed does lose his fight to Creed, a simple fact that many view­ers of­ten for­get. Why? Well, con­sid­er­ing Rocky fought so vali­antly and pushed his top-line op­pon­ent to the brink of a stun­ning de­feat, it’s only nat­ur­al to as­sume the chal­lenger won, even if the score­card said oth­er­wise.

On Sat­urday night at North­east High School, Frank­ford played the role of Rocky, while mighty St. Joseph’s Prep wore its Creed trunks in the PI­AA Dis­trict 12 city title foot­ball game. Much like the film, most out­siders snickered at the thought of the Pi­on­eers keep­ing things com­pet­it­ive, let alone be­ing in a po­s­i­tion to steal a win. But alas, that’s how things un­fol­ded, as Frank­ford went the full 12 rounds with the Prep, hav­ing a chance to win on a pair of drives late in the fourth quarter.

Re­cords will in­dic­ate the Prep just barely held on in a ti­tan­ic de­fens­ive battle, 10-7, giv­ing the Cath­ol­ic League an­oth­er win in a game it nor­mally dom­in­ates; however, des­pite the fi­nal score, the Pi­on­eers earned something in this game that the Pub­lic League des­per­ately needed: re­spect.

“We didn’t get lucky; we were in it the whole game and we should have won it in the fourth quarter,” head coach Will Dog­gett said. “We just came up a bit short. We had a couple of op­por­tun­it­ies we could have cap­it­al­ized on, and we had a few mis­cues. Oth­er than that, I was happy with how the game went. Most people didn’t think we had a shot against these guys.”

He’s not kid­ding. The dis­crep­an­cies between Pub­lic and Cath­ol­ic League foot­ball pro­grams are no secret, and usu­ally when the champs of each league meet in this con­test, it’s not close. Last year’s Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­on, La Salle, thrashed Frank­ford 37-20.

But Frank­ford al­ways thought it had a shot in this one, partly be­cause of Prep start­ing QB Chris Mar­tin be­ing lost to a knee in­jury in the Cath­ol­ic fi­nal, and partly be­cause they matched up cap­ably on the lines. If this war was go­ing to be fought in the trenches, the Pi­on­eers liked their chances of win­ning the battle.

“Every­one was pre­dict­ing a blo­wout,” said seni­or RB/DB Dami­on Samuels. “I saw one score that said 46-14, or something crazy like that. We felt as if we were be­ing really dis­respec­ted. We were go­ing to get re­spect if we had to force and de­mand our way to it.”

The score read 10-0 Prep at the half, and there was not much in the way of of­fense. The Hawks’ only touch­down oc­curred after a short field-goal at­tempt at 4th-and-6 from the Frank­ford 11; after Frank­ford was whistled off­sides, the Prep went for it (and con­ver­ted) on 4th-and-1, and Hawks RB/LB and Rhawn­hurst nat­ive Vince Mof­fett scored on a 2-yard run on the play after the con­ver­sion.

After Frank­ford’s drive to open the second half was hal­ted at the Prep 35, the Pi­on­eers quickly forced a punt and used a 10-play, 62-yard drive to cut it to 10-7 on a 6-yard TD run by seni­or QB Mar­quise Po­ston with 50 seconds left. (Po­ston had kept the drive go­ing with com­ple­tions of 16 and 21 yards, one of which came on a crit­ic­al 3rd-and-12.) The Prep quickly raced down to Frank­ford’s 8 on the en­su­ing drive, but Samuels re­covered QB Jack Cle­m­ents’ fumble to set the stage for a wild fourth.

Twice more Frank­ford stopped the Hawks in­side their 15-yard line, once on a missed field goal from the 12 and the oth­er on a turnover on downs on the 5. Frank­ford’s first of­fens­ive ef­fort with 3:02 left was squelched by a Po­ston INT; when he and his team got the ball on their own 6 with 1:17 to go, Po­ston com­pleted three passes to the 50, but his fi­nal two ef­forts fell in­com­plete to end the game.

The Pi­on­eers lit­er­ally came that close to shock­ing the foot­ball world, in large part to a Her­culean de­fens­ive ef­fort in which many play­ers (Po­ston, Samuels, Quin­ton El­lis, Kadar Jones, to name a few) played two-way foot­ball throughout.

“This is the best de­fense I’ve coached here, and I’m ex­tremely proud of their ef­fort,” Dog­gett said. “Things went well on that side. I just wish we could have giv­en them some more points.”

The loss, be­cause it was so close, has made it even harder to get over.

“Per­son­ally, it’s still in my head,” Samuels said by phone on Monday. “In my mind, I felt like we should have won. We hit guys and made them feel pain on every play. Each and every one of us gave it our all. There were a few mis­takes and mis­cues (a gift-wrapped pick-six from Cle­m­ents and an air­borne snap over Po­ston’s head in the third, to name a few), but I’m so proud of the ef­fort and char­ac­ter we showed.”

If the Pi­on­eers were out for re­spect, they surely earned it. A mem­ber of the Prep coach­ing staff stopped by Dog­gett’s post­game huddle to con­grat­u­late the ef­fort, while Mof­fett called Frank­ford “prob­ably the toughest team we’ve played all year.” Pub­lic League chair Robert Cole­man lauded Frank­ford for do­ing “one hell of a job,” and Dog­gett told his heart­broken team that he “couldn’t be prouder if you were my own kids.”

“We rep­res­en­ted Frank­ford to the max,” Dog­gett said. “We made some mis­takes and should have had the ‘W,’ but you live and you learn. There’s no reas­on for them to hang their heads. They left everything out on that field. They played like champs from the first whistle to the last one. We sent a mes­sage to the Cath­ol­ic League that we’re no longer pushovers.”

Samuels, des­pite ob­vi­ous linger­ing dis­ap­point­ment in his voice, backed up his head coach. 

“In that situ­ation, you think about the stor­ies where you do something to make people re­mem­ber you,” he said. “If we win that game, then we’re one of the best teams in Pub­lic League his­tory. We knew in our minds how close this game would be, even if nobody else did.”

In the end, it was a com­mend­able ef­fort that came up just short. Maybe people will re­mem­ber Frank­ford as Rocky, the chal­lenger that gave the heavy­weight op­pon­ent all it could handle; or maybe Samuels is right, that “nobody re­mem­bers the run­ner-up, just the win­ner.” Either way, it was a clas­sic for the ages, and when this game comes around again in 2014, the Pub­lic League shouldn’t be con­sidered an enorm­ous un­der­dog any­more “just be­cause.” 

“I felt we had to give that kind of ef­fort against a team like that,” Dog­gett said. “No half-steps, no haphaz­ard ways. Just Frank­ford foot­ball from start to fin­ish. I’ll tell you one thing, this is one of my fa­vor­ite teams of all time.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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