Even though it was Labor Day, Northeast High School’s football team had some work to do.
A few days earlier — on Friday morning — the Vikings had swallowed an eminently bitter pill, a 35-34 loss at Abington High School. The taste of that defeat ruined a season opener that had seemed headed for a festive celebration.
But despite leads of 14-0, 22-6, 28-14 and 34-28, Northeast was unable to stop the Galloping Ghosts’ explosive offense. And so, on what is usually a vacation day, the Vikings all met as a team to conduct a walk-through.
The fact that no one seemed to mind is an encouraging sign.
“There’s a commitment here,” said Northeast senior Asa Manley, “and you can feel it. We’re all in. We have been since the end of last year.”
Manley said he still vividly recalls losing to George Washington, 17-13, in last fall’s Public League AAAA semifinals. He also remembers what he noticed as he left the field.
“I could tell that we left a lot out there, and that from that point on, we were going to come back with more hunger and more drive,” Manley said. “I saw it in my teammates’ faces. They were disappointed but they weren’t finished. That look is still there. We all want to do better than last year.”
Individually, it was unrealistic to expect Manley to contribute more than he did against Abington, a Class AAAA squad from the Suburban One National Conference with championship aspirations.
Taking over as the team’s new quarterback after leading the Vikings in rushing yards (812 on 160 carries) and touchdowns (six) as a running back last year, Manley accumulated 187 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries (and scored on a pair of two-point conversion runs) and completed six of nine passes for 78 yards and two more scores — both to senior wideout Clayton Rush.
On defense, Manley intercepted a pass. In addition to rushing for 73 yards and a touchdown on 14 hauls, senior teammate Rushawn George also snared a theft.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
“At the end of the day, no matter the reasons, you can’t pass blame to anyone or anything,” Manley said. “You can’t blame this and that, or the referees. You have to find a way to overcome that.”
Northeast second-year coach Phil Gormley said he was “proud” of his players for their effort and ability to remain positive regardless of any adversity. Asked about what several witnesses described as incompetent and biased officiating, Gormley chose to avoid the topic and focus on what he and his coaches are able to handle on their own.
“You can’t win every football game,” said Gormley, “but you can help build men every day.”
He also accepted responsibility for the Vikings’ defensive lapses.
“We have to do a better job of putting them in better positions to make plays,” Gormley said. “We have more of a reactionary defense, and they were in some tough spots. Sometimes it was like trying to fit square pegs in round holes.”
That said, Northeast’s defense refused to be intimidated by its formidable, and favored, foe.
“The kids expected to win,” Gormley said. “That’s a really good thing. It’s not about braggadocios. It’s just that they believed that they were going to come out on top. That’s what you want to see. I feel like we’re going in the right direction.”
Obviously pleased with Manley’s eye-popping performance, Gormley credited offensive coordinator Rob Ford’s “phenomenal job” of working with Manley, who also punts and holds for kickers on special teams.
When Northeast’s coaching staff decided to pass the QB reins to Manley, he didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.
“I was fine with it right away,” said Manley, who shares team captain duties with Chuck Anderson, Steve Rowe and Gladimir Paul. “I felt ready for it. It’s our senior season. Let’s go out with a bang. I feel blessed that my coaches and teammates have so much faith in me.”
Combined with his burgeoning talent and his impressive 3.5 grade-point average, Manley has garnered some college interest and hopes the collegiate recognition increases. Meanwhile, Manley will focus on his academics while simultaneously learning the nuances of what is arguably sports’ most pressure-packed position.
“Academics always has to come ahead of sports,” Manley said. “Without a brain, you can’t do much of anything.”
But with a brain, legs and arm, one could do plenty.
Just ask Abington.
“They were upbeat in the post-game handshake,” Manley said. “Congratulating me on playing well, on us playing well as a team. They didn’t expect us to play like that. We earned their respect as football players.”
A loss notwithstanding, not a bad start to the season. ••