The St. Joseph’s Prep football team ran to the locker room for final preparations before the start of Saturday’s state semifinal against Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic.
Malik Cooper stayed behind, working for another 10 minutes on the empty field at Mansion Park Stadium in Altoona.
Roll left, pass.
Roll right, pass.
Three hours later, Cooper would roll to his right for the final time of the day and throw one of the most remarkable passes in St. Joseph’s Prep football history.
Cooper’s 12-yard scoring strike to Marvin Harrison Jr. with 0:15 remaining in regulation forced overtime and set the stage for Cooper’s game-winning touchdown run in the extra session of St. Joseph’s Prep’s 31-24 victory.
“My mindset was that we needed to score,” Cooper said. “That’s all that was in my mind.”
Cooper isn’t a quarterback. He just plays one for one of the top high school teams in the country.
Everybody around the Prep program was confident that Cooper, a junior, would step for injured star quarterback Kyle McCord, an Ohio State recruit, and play with energy, enthusiasm, intelligence and dynamic athleticism.
They didn’t expect him to complete passes like a pool shark running the table.
And nobody foresaw that incredible fourth-down throw to Harrison -- eight ball in the corner pocket, after a couple of banks off the cushions -- with the season on the line and Central Catholic defensive linemen in hot pursuit.
“He plays with heart," Harrison said "No one is going to play harder than him. He plays with passion, loves the game of football.”
St. Joseph’s Prep (11-2) will meet Central Dauphin (12-2) in the PIAA Class 6A state final Saturday at 6 p.m. at Hershey Park Stadium.
Cooper, who lives in Germantown and played youth football for St. Aloysius Academy, usually is a wide receiver. He has 30 catches this season for 563 yards and five touchdowns, with a combined 12 receptions for 278 yards in big games early in the year against national-caliber foes St. John’s College of Washington, D.C. and IMG Academy of Bradenton, Fla.
When McCord went down with a knee injury before the Nov. 16 city title game vs. Northeast, Cooper took command of the Prep offense. He puts a positive spin on the position switch.
“I love it," Cooper said. "I love anywhere I play. I’m a versatile athlete. It doesn’t matter where you put me. I’ve just got to go out and do my job.”
On a cold, overcast afternoon in Altoona, Cooper ran for two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in overtime. But his passing accuracy was a revelation, especially given the stakes and level of competition.
He was 22-for-25 passing for 271 yards. He was 13-for-14 after halftime. He hit the bull’s-eye, on the move and under duress, with the biggest throw of his life.
“He’s got great composure,” St. Joseph’s Prep coach Tim Roken said. “He’s matured so much as a young man, to be able to control his emotions and not play the game in his head.”
Cooper was 5-for-5 in the decisive drive as the Hawks covered 82 yards in a little over two minutes, with Central Catholic fans on their feet and the Vikings’ loaded defensive line bringing pressure on nearly every snap.
“I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to score here,’” Cooper said. “I knew I had my O-line behind me. I knew I had my coaches, my teammates behind me.”
The Prep called its final timeout with 0:25 on the clock. The Hawks were facing a fourth-and-10 from the 12.
Moments after taking the snap, Cooper nearly was sacked as Central Catholic collapsed the pocket. He skirted out of trouble and rolled right, just like during that pregame workout.
He threw a spiral on the run, just like during that pregame workout.
But this was no drill. This was the do-or-die moment of the Prep’s season.
The pass was money. Harrison snagged the football in the back of the end zone, getting one foot down with balletic touch.
“Amazing catch,” Cooper said. “Beautiful catch.”
Harrison called it the best catch of his life.
And that throw?
You know what all that practice makes?