In his seventh season as the Samuel Fels head football coach, Bill Harrigan understands as well as anybody that football is a numbers game.
In Friday morning’s season opener against Penn Charter, the Panthers suited up just 23 players. The number is expected to rise as late physical forms continue to pour in, but needless to say Harrigan’s team faced an uphill battle, especially considering the Quakers brought 45 uniformed players to the tilt at Northeast High School.
The result was nearly every Fels player needing to play on both sides of the ball in what turned out to be a 54-26 Penn Charter victory. The Quakers led 26-0 after one and 47-6 at halftime, and the wide scoreboard chasm illustrated how Public League squads struggle with personnel numbers when stacked up against Catholic, Inter-Ac or suburban opponents.
“The first half of the first game of the season is always tough with guys dealing with jitters,” Harrigan said after the game. “The added thing this year is our numbers were a little lower than usual, mainly due to the late decision on whether the district was going to open the schools on time. We still have guys we’re waiting on, so our roster isn’t complete.”
Players are still working on getting into game shape, which certainly presented a challenge considering almost everyone played two ways.
“I think the first half showed our guys the importance of conditioning,” Harrigan said. “We had some tired guys, but not as tired as expected when you consider we had 23 kids to fill 11 spots.”
With that being said, Harrigan was certainly pleased with his team’s second-half effort. Despite being down by 41 at the break, Fels didn’t pack it in and roll over. Quite the opposite, in fact: the Panthers won the second half, 19-7, to the point where frustrated Penn Charter head coach Tommy Coyle (formerly the boss at Father Judge) had to put his starting unit back in when Fels trimmed the lead to 21.
Faced with the titanic task of replacing last year’s division MVP Jylil Reeder on offense, Harrigan liked what he saw from junior quarterback Aasim Campbell, who completed 7 of 15 passes for 85 yards and a score and added a touchdown on the ground. Senior Wesley White racked up 85 yards of total offense himself, while senior Kordell Robinson (two catches, 24 yards, TD) and senior Samir Coe (seven carries, 53 yards, TD, as well as a 45-yard fumble return for a score) also contributed.
Reeder accounted for 1,730 offensive yards in 2013 as a wideout, running back and quarterback. He scored 29 total touchdowns — 10 rushing, 14 receiving, two passing, two on kickoffs and one interception return — so Harrigan knew it would take a village to come close to equaling Reeder’s immense production across the board.
“Listen, we know we can’t replace a Jylil Reeder with just one player,” Harrigan said. “But Wesley and Kordell and Samir all did a really nice job. And we have an opportunity we see with Aasim to spread the ball around a bit more, which he did today. We’re hoping to continue to get all three units improving as our numbers get better. Once that happens, we’re really confident the offense can really pick up and go.”
Following the game, Harrigan told his team a story about the 2010 season opener. In that game, Fels was blown out by Simon Gratz, 66-36, in a non-league contest; the Panthers followed up with an 8-4 overall record (6-0 in division) and handed John Bartram a 50-8 annihilation in the playoffs.
The message was simple: it’s not about how you start, but how you finish.
“In the second half, we eliminated a lot of mistakes and the big plays we were giving up,” Harrigan said. “We kept it a lot more competitive. It gives us something positive to build on, and playing against their second unit in the second half, I think that’s a little more indicative of the competition we’ll see in the Public League on a daily basis.”
In a tale of two halves, Harrigan is hoping he sees more of the second-half fight in his boys as the season moves forward. Fels will have another stiff challenge this Friday night when the Panthers travel to take on William Tennent (7 p.m.).
“The second-half effort is something we’re ecstatic about,” Harrigan said. “They continued to battle. We’ve been in positions in years past when guys just gave up, but we stayed together and kept playing. It seems like we have a real good group of kids who are friendly, want to help one another out and see each other do well. That will be the difference as the season progresses, but I think that we have a team in the truest sense of the word.” ••