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Southeastern Pennsylvania Football Rankings: St. Joseph’s Prep, Archbishop Wood earn titles, spur talk of format change

The Hawks and Vikings each won their third state title in the four years since the PIAA expanded the classifications to six groups. Their sustained success has led some public-school supporters to call for a separate group for private-school programs.

Archbishop Wood players celebrate with championship trophy after beating Cheltenham 19-15 to win the PIAA 5A State Championship in Hershey on Friday night.
Archbishop Wood players celebrate with championship trophy after beating Cheltenham 19-15 to win the PIAA 5A State Championship in Hershey on Friday night.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

On Friday night, Archbishop Wood won its sixth state title since 2011.

On Saturday night, St. Joseph’s Prep won its fifth state title since 2013.

It was a big weekend in Hershey for the Philadelphia Catholic League powers, the perennial District 12 champions in the PIAA’s largest classifications (Class 5A for Wood, 6A for the Prep).

Archbishop Wood’s dramatic 19-15 victory Cheltenham secured the Vikings’ third state title in the PIAA’s second-largest classification since the state organization went to six groups in 2016.

Same deal for St. Joseph’s Prep after the Hawks’ 35-13 win over Central Dauphin -- three titles in the largest classification in the four years since the expansion to six groups.

Public schools continue to consistently win championships in the smaller groups. But the road to gold in Class 5A and 6A clearly runs through the powerhouse programs in the Philadelphia Catholic League.

This weekend marked the fourth time since 2013 that Wood and the Prep captured the crowns in the two-largest classifications in the same season.

That’s dominance.

That’s also a source of consternation for coaches, administrators and supporters of large-school public programs, many of whom believe the private schools have an unfair advantage in attracting student-athletes without the restrictions of a geographic “sending” district.

Let’s be clear: The sustained success of Archbishop Wood and St. Joseph’s Prep involves a lot more than attracting talented football players to their schools. It would be grossly unfair to minimize the hard work, dedication, and commitment required of the coaches and players to produce championship football teams, season after season.

But the public-school defenders have a point, too. It’s not exactly a level playing field.

One thing is sure: Another golden weekend in Hershey for the pride of the Philadelphia Catholic League is sure to increase calls for private schools in Pennsylvania to be broken into their own classification for state tournament competition, not unlike the New Jersey system.

Here’s the final Top 10, with last week’s ranking in parentheses:

1. St. Joseph’s Prep (1) 12-2: Every state title comes with its own measure of satisfaction, but this one might have been especially sweet for the Hawks. St. Joseph’s Prep is a program loaded with talent. But this group dealt with its share of adversity this season, taking the field for the championship game with arguably its best offensive player (junior quarterback Kyle McCord, an Ohio State recruit) and its best defensive player (junior linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., a Clemson recruit) on the sideline with injuries. Senior all-purpose standout Anthony Rightley was on crutches, too. The Hawks’ solution was to outmuscle a Central Dauphin team that had controlled the line of scrimmage in putting 65 on the board in the state semifinals against Downingtown West. The Prep’s offensive line, led by seniors Matt Lombardi, Matt McGeary and Casey Stephenson, and the defensive front seven, sparked by Liam Johnson and Blake Romano, won this game in the trenches.

2. Downingtown West (2) 13-2: Senior two-way standout Sean Pelkisson, a Georgia Southern recruit, averaged 11.2 yards on 20 carries and 13.8 yards on 24 catches on the offensive side of the football. His best work was on defense. He led the Whippets with 95 tackles, including 28 tackles for losses, as well as 10 sacks.

3. Coatesville (3) 10-3: Senior John Ruttman led a defense that played its best football down the stretch for the Red Raiders. A linebacker, Ruttman made a team-high 81 tackles, with 14 tackles for losses and three sacks.

4. Archbishop Wood (4) 11-3: Junior Cardel Pigford’s catch of a slant pass from junior Max Keller for a three-yard touchdown with 0:04 on the clock lifted the Vikings to victory over Cheltenham in a wild PIAA Class 5A title game. But it was junior Kaelin Costello, operating behind an offensive line that got stronger and stronger over the course of the season, that set the stage for Wood’s sixth state title of the decade. Costello ran for 280 yards and a score on 38 carries on a blustery, brutally cold night. His rushing totals in the Vikings’ final three games: 280, 272 and 129.

5. Episcopal Academy (5) 9-1: Senior Paul McLaughlin and junior James Hoogstraten formed the engine room of an offensive line that cleared the way for the Churchmen to generate 396 yards per game, including an average of 265 rushing yards.

6. Northeast (6) 12-2: Junior Jon-Luke Peaker ran for 1,172 yards and 15 touchdowns for the Vikings. Peaker averaged 9.5 yards per carry and broke loose for the team’s most electrifying rushing play of the season, an 85-yard burst that produced a 7-0 lead over St. Joseph’s Prep early in the Class 6A city title game.

7. Cheltenham (7) 14-2: The Panthers came too close to an actual victory to find much solace in the moral kind in the wake of their loss to Archbishop Wood in the state final. But this team’s resilient nature and competitive fire were manifest to the bitter end. Down 12-0 in tough conditions, senior quarterback Adonis Hunter threw a pair of touchdown passes to rally the Panthers to a 15-12 lead with four minutes on the clock. Ultimately, it was a disappointing but defiant ending to the best season in program history.

8. Garnet Valley (9) 11-2: Senior lineman Lance Schwartz was the cornerstone of an offensive line that paved the way for the Jaguars to rush for 4,296 yards (an average of 330.4 yards per game) and 66 touchdowns.

9. Haverford High (10) 11-3: Senior Chasen Wint ran for 894 yards and 14 touchdowns despite missing three games with an injury for the Fords.

10. La Salle (NR) 8-3: The Explorers’ last game was a loss to St. Joseph’s Prep on Nov. 9. So how do they return to the Top 10? Well, as of this weekend, this team’s three losses were to state champions. They couldn’t match up with the Prep (who could?) and lost by 21-20 on a blocked extra point in overtime vs. Archbishop Wood. But the Explorers beat Imhotep Charter, North Penn, and Malvern Prep in tough, nonleague competition and twice manhandled a Roman Catholic team that beat Archbishop Wood. Senior linebacker Dillon Trainer and senior end Ryan Savage led the La Salle defense, while junior Ryan Wills anchored an offensive line that cleared the way for a burgeoning star in sophomore Sam Brown (636 rushing yards, 543 receiving yards, 18 total touchdowns).

Under consideration: Academy Park (10-3), Bonner-Prendergast (9-2), Central Bucks West (10-2), Downingtown East (10-2), Germantown Academy (7-2), Imhotep Charter (8-5), Kennett (10-2), Neumann-Goretti (11-1), North Penn (8-4), Plymouth-Whitemarsh (9-2), Pope John Paul II (10-3), West Chester East (9-3), West Chester Rustin (9-4).