Perplexed faces. Bishop McDevitt senior quarterback Lonnie Rice remembers them well.
He was a freshman with a dream back then, unwilling to let quizzical looks stop his drive toward a college scholarship.
“When I told people I went to McDevitt,” Rice said in a recent phone interview, “they were like, ‘McDevitt? Why do you want go to McDevitt?’ Or they’d say, ‘McDevitt. What’s that?’ ”
Thanks to Rice’s game-winning score on Oct. 5, Bishop McDevitt was victorious against recent Catholic League Blue division rival West Catholic for the first time since 2001.
The win was just one in recent weeks for Catholic and Public league football programs that appear to be on the rise.
Last week, Northeast dealt perennial Public League power Imhotep its first regular-season loss since 2012. On Sept. 28, Roman Catholic, led by a first-year coach, beat Archbishop Wood for the first time in school history. And Bonner-Prendergast dominated Conwell-Egan last week after lopsided losses to them in recent years.
Brick-by-brick at McDevitt
The first time McDevitt coach Mike Watkins saw Rice play youth football, the search was over.
Watkins, a 1999 McDevitt graduate and former all-Catholic defensive back, sought to build a program with a sturdy foundation.
“The second I saw him I didn’t need to see anybody else,” Watkins said.
Watkins had been McDevitt’s defensive coordinator since 2014 under Pat Manzi, the Lancers’ head coach since 1982.
Manzi’s McDevitt won league titles in 1986, 1987, and 1999, according to TedSilary.com. When Manzi stepped away after the 2013 season, however, the Lancers went winless in league play in 2014.
Manzi returned the following season and led the Lancers to a District 12 Class A championship. But McDevitt still finished 1-3 in PCL play.
When Watkins took over in 2016, he tried to build something of his own.
“Brick-by-brick” became his motto.
“Everyone is a brick in the wall we are building,” Watkins said. “If one brick crumbles, the wall could come down.”
Tyrone Fowler is a 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior defensive lineman who disrupted West Catholic’s offense last Saturday night at Springfield-Montco.
Fellow senior two-way lineman Hakim Dodson, at 6-1, 270, also played well against the Burrs.
Even a freshman defensive back, Ty Tindal, added an interception late in the fourth quarter.
Bricks without mortar, however, do not a wall make.
On fourth-and-6 with less than 30 seconds left, Rice, widely recognized as the Lancers’ leader, scrambled and broke a few tackles before scoring the game-winner in the 16-8 victory.
The Lancers (3-4, 2-2 Catholic League) had lost two straight, including a 44-0 stomping the previous week by undefeated division leader Neumann-Goretti (7-0, 3-0).
“Everybody can celebrate a win,” said Rice, who has committed to the University of Buffalo, "but taking a loss can help you build character and bounce back for the next week.”
Watkins, who welcomed a little Lancer last week when his wife, Theresa, gave birth to the couple’s third daughter, Brooke, said the victory was great for the program but also important for the second half of this season.
Northeast no longer bends the knee
Make the tackle or perhaps lose the game.
Northeast junior linebacker Keino Salmon had no other choice.
At stake was a chance to beat the unofficial king of the Public League, Imhotep, which hadn’t lost a regular-season league game since 2011.
According to Northeast coach Phil Gormley, Salmon and the Vikings already had made their choice.
“That play was made in January, February, and March,” Gormley said via phone, “during the four or five days a week we were lifting.”
Imhotep senior quarterback Jalen Sutton-Christian had just barreled 11 yards with 13 seconds left for a critical score that got the defending league champion Panthers to within 8-6.
On the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt, Salmon was alone in the flat with Imhotep senior Saint McLeod, one of the state’s toughest at running back and safety.
Salmon tracked the quick pass, hit the 6-foot, 190-pound McLeod, pushed him backward and held his ground when McLeod pushed forward.
Adding 15 to 20 pounds in the weight room, Gormley said, helped the 5-9, 180-pound Salmon make the stop. It also likely helped that McLeod slowed to pivot backward to make the catch.
Playing tough opponents such as nationally ranked St. Francis last year, Gormley said, also helped.
“We purposely try to play the most difficult non-league schedule we can for exactly that reason,” Gormley said. “I thought our kids kept their composure.
“I was very proud. They showed a level of maturity and strength that in the past we haven’t always shown. I think they really grew up that night.”
Northeast (6-1, 3-0 Public League) is the front-runner in Class 6A Public League play. Imhotep, which has won a Public League title every year since 2012, still can retain the Class 4A crown.
Roman’s first reign
Rick Prete, Roman Catholic first-year coach, saw the defensive coverage he wanted and didn’t hesitate.
“We wanted to let our players know that we’re all in,” Prete said.
On its first offensive possession on Sept. 28 against Archbishop Wood — one of the most dominant Catholic League programs in the last 10 years — the Cahillites did just that.
Near midfield, junior quarterback Jayden Pope hit speedy senior receiver Malachi Harris on a post for a touchdown.
Roman (3-3, 1-1 Catholic League) tried but failed to recover an on-side kick on the ensuing kickoff. Prete’s point, however, was clear.
“We want to show our players that we’re going to be aggressive, and we’re going for the win,” he said.
The 20-6 triumph was Roman’s first against Wood, which had dominated the Cahillites, 80-6, in the last two meetings combined (42-0 last season and 38-6 in 2017).
Prete had been an offensive coordinator at Imhotep before he coached the Cahillites.
The Panthers knew how to win big games, Prete said. They expected to win.
Despite a 44-7 loss to St. Joseph’s Prep last week, Prete said the Cahillites are learning how to win.
“I think it’s huge,” he said of the win against Wood. “It says a lot about the dominance of Wood, but it also lets everybody know that Roman is on the move, Roman is here, and a hopefully this can catapult us.”
Jack Muldoon took plenty of varsity lumps the last two seasons, but he had a sense that reinforcements were on the way.
When the Bonner-Prendergast coach took over his alma mater in 2016, the freshman football team, which had been scuttled due to lack of depth, was high on his to-do list.
“Kids lose interest,” Muldoon said. “It’s hard when you have freshmen who aren’t getting taught every day, not getting coached. They need that year to play together, and it’s worked out.”
Last week, the Friars (5-1, 3-1 Catholic League) beat Conwell-Egan, 46-7, after losing by a combined 118-27 to the Eagles in the last two seasons (55-6 last season and 63-21 in 2017).
The Friars finished 2-11 in league play in the last two seasons and 4-18 overall.
Junior quarterback Kyle Lazer and seniors Oscar Uduma and Charles Ingram were among Muldoon’s first to come through the freshman program. Sophomore Mason Peterson leads the team in rushing (304 yards). Junior tight end James Welde leads in catches (15) and receiving yards (216).
Muldoon, a 1975 graduate of Monsignor Bonner, coached freshman football at St. Joseph’s Prep, under both Gil Brooks and Gabe Infante.
It was there he learned the freshman program’s importance to sustained success.
"We’re trying to bring Bonner-Prendie football back to where it’s a respected program,” the 62-year-old Muldoon said. “That’s really my passion now. This is my last stop, my last rodeo. I’ve been coaching for a long time.”