By the time the third quarter had ended in Friday night’s Catholic League football semifinal contest at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, the damage had long been done.
La Salle held a commanding 35-0 lead on a night where everything went right for the five-time reigning champs; on the visiting sideline, the inverse was true for the challenger, Father Judge, which had come within one point of beating this same Explorers team a month ago.
But still, even in the midst of the season’s worst, most lopsided loss, a lasting image of a team that refused to quit broke through in the form of its defensive captain. And his cast.
Oh, that cast.
Senior middle linebacker Joe Nigro played the entire game with an enormous, bulky cast covering most of his left arm. It was designed to protect a broken second metacarpal, an injury he suffered while making a tackle in a 10-7 win over Roman Catholic the week before.
Nigro may have been battered, and his team may have been trailing by five touchdowns, but he wasn’t coming off the field. In the last postseason contest of his high school career, nothing short of handcuffs and a squad car would have been able to remove Judge’s uber-intense defensive leader from the battlefield.
“I went to the doctor and he said I didn’t need surgery, and as long as I didn’t need surgery, I could play,” Nigro said. “It’s the playoffs of my senior year. I wasn’t going to miss it. There was no way. I had to get used to the cast, and it was more difficult coming off blocks and wrapping up guys, but once I got used to it I was pretty effective. It wasn’t that bad.”
It surely wasn’t pleasurable for Nigro and his teammates to watch La Salle quarterback Kyle Shurmur throw for 258 yards and a city playoff record five touchdown passes, but they finished the job they started nonetheless. It wasn’t long ago when Nigro and company stood toe-to-toe with the Explorers, building a 16-0 lead on Oct. 5 before Shurmur burned the Crusaders for two TD passes, including the go-ahead one in the fourth quarter.
“They just executed, their offense passed a lot on us and our offense couldn’t get anything going,” Nigro said. “In the first game, we forced some turnovers and this time around they just did a better job.
“You just play your heart out the entire game, you never give up. That’s how I was brought up to play. You have pride in yourself and you play the whole game the hardest you can. We just wanted to go out this season and earn some respect back while playing our hardest. I think we did a pretty good job of doing that.”
Blowout loss to La Salle (8-2) notwithstanding, Nigro and the Crusaders (6-4) experienced more peaks than valleys under first-year head coach Mike McKay. Nigro admitted there was a bit of a getting-to-know-you period when McKay replaced Tommy Coyle (Coyle left for Penn Charter after 13 years as head coach), but that things soon began falling into place.
After Judge gave up 30 points in the first half in the season-opening loss to Episcopal, Nigro and company posted 17 consecutive scoreless quarters on defense. In that time, Judge outscored its opponents, 143-0; despite allowing crooked numbers to St. Joseph’s Prep (regular season) and La Salle (postseason), Judge still allowed just 15.7 points per game as a unit, even more impressive when considering the overall quality of the league — even last place Archbishop Ryan boasted an offense that averaged just under 30 points per game.
“Those shutouts, we took a lot of pride in that as a defense and as a team,” Nigro said. “When we eventually let up some points (four games later), we wanted to move on and start another streak. We went out there and played our hearts out every game, to prove to ourselves that we could compete. We also tried to go out there and have the best time we could. I’m very happy with how this season went.”
Despite being eliminated by La Salle, the season isn’t over yet for Nigro and the Crusaders. They still have the annual Thanksgiving game with Lincoln to look forward to, meaning they have a few more weeks together as a team. Still having a game plan to focus on and a goal to prepare for means everything to Nigro and the rest of the Judge seniors.
“We have off this week, and it’s already starting to hit me that it’s almost over,” he said. “I already miss it. I want to be out there practicing, even though there were plenty of times when it was a struggle just to put on pads because I didn’t want to be out there. Now that there’s not too much time left, I want to be out there more than anything.”
Count McKay as one of Nigro’s biggest fans.
“Joe didn’t have to be the biggest or fastest guy to be successful,” McKay said. “Those other intangibles come in to play when it relates to Joe, like heart, toughness and a desire to succeed. He anchored the middle at linebacker.
“Joe has been battling injuries since the summer, and he would do anything to get on the field and stay there. He’s been committed since I met him. He led by exmaple with how he practiced, prepared and worked right up through the game. He is respected by his teammates and coaches for that. Personally, he is one of the captains and seniors on my first team at Judge and was instrumental in some of the success we had. Although he will move on to future successes, his contributions to Judge — and myself — cannot be replaced.”
Nigro is still figuring out his college plans for next fall. He doesn’t know where he’ll head next, though he did mention that he would like to continue playing football while studying something in the mathematics field, maybe engineering. He said the future of the program under McKay’s direction is bright with unlimited potential, and Nigro believes it won’t be long before someone — hopefully Judge, he said — unseats the Explorers as Catholic League champions.
For now, he just wants to enjoy the precious months he has left with his classmates at a school that, like so many student-athletes who walk through these halls and play on these fields, has grown to mean so much to him.
“I want to make the best of it, the time I have left here with my friends,” he said. “A lot of us will go to college and I know I won’t see many of them for a long time. I want to just not take it for granted. This season, I didn’t think it would go that fast, but it did. Sometimes I feel like maybe I did take my time here for granted, so I’m focused on finishing strong and having the best time I can.
“I love the school. It’s taught me a lot of life lessons, like how to work hard and always be determined. It means a lot to me. It’s not just a school, it’s a family. Everyone is so close together, and we all get along. You want to do anything to help that person next to you. I’m definitely going to miss it here, but at least it’s given me so many good memories.” ••