Playing in the PIAA football state semifinal — that was motivation enough for Bishop McDevitt senior Joachim McElroy.
Playing in the state semifinal against perhaps Pennsylvania’s most decorated team, a Southern Columbia squad with 10 state titles and an active 58-game winning streak – that was even more incentive for the Royal Lancers’ versatile standout.
Playing in the state semifinal three days after the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced plans to close his beloved high school in Wyncote, Montgomery County in June — that was the kicker for the doomed program’s three-way contributor and three-year captain.
“I’ve never wanted to play Bishop McDevitt football more than I want to play Bishop McDevitt football in this game,” McElroy said.
McElroy, at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, has led Bishop McDevitt to the state semifinals for the first time in program history, in the last season in program history, barring a long-shot effort to save the school after the archdiocese on Wednesday detailed its planned closure along with Hallahan Girls’ High because of declining enrollment and mounting financial pressure.
Bishop McDevitt (4-1) will meet Southern Columbia (10-0) in the PIAA Class 2A state semifinal Saturday at 1 p.m. at Selinsgrove High in Snyder County. The winner will advance to the state finals, set for Nov. 28 at HersheyPark Stadium.
“That program is legendary,” Bishop McDevitt coach Mike Watkins said of Southern Columbia, which has won three state titles in a row, capturing the 2019 crown with a 74-7 victory over previously undefeated Avonworth.
Southern Columbia coach Jim Roth has 454 wins in his 37th season. The Pennsylvania record for career coaching victories is 455, set by former Berwick coach George Curry.
Renowned for the ruthless efficiency of their Wing-T offense, the Tigers are averaging 51.6 points this season. Their smallest margin of victory was 27 points, in last weekend’s 57-30 win over Richland of Johnstown in the state quarterfinals.
“It’s like they are born to play in that offense,” Watkins said. “But our kids can’t wait. I’m not sure they’ve seen a team with as much speed as we have.”
McElroy has led the way for the Royal Lancers. He’s the team’s top receiver and defensive back as well as kicker and punter. He’s picked up his game in the state playoffs, running for a 57-yard touchdown in the opener against Dunmore and catching five passes for 52 yards and returning an interception for 23 yards in the second round against Camp Hill.
Watkins said McElroy’s leadership has been even more important than his production, especially in a season filled with uncertainty.
“He’s as good as it gets,” Watkins said. “He has a 4.0 GPA. He’ a three-year captain. He makes plays all over the field.
“But with us being such a young team with so many sophomores, and dealing with the daily unknowns this season, his leadership is really what has made him so special.”
McElroy, who lives in Cheltenham, takes pride in his versatility.
“I’ll do whatever I need to do to help this football team,” McElroy said. “If they ask me to play defensive tackle and go against some kid who is 6-5, I’ll give 100%.”
McElroy said he’s been anticipating a possible matchup with Southern Columbia since last season, when the Tigers featured wide receiver Julian Fleming, ESPN’s top-ranked player in the nation in the class of 2020 and a current freshman at Ohio State.
McElroy said news that Bishop McDevitt would close in June has created a surreal atmosphere in the school.
“You walk down the halls, and there’s like 50 kids crying,” McElroy said.
It also has made him more determined than ever to make the most of Saturday’s state semifinal.
“When I heard the news, my heart dropped into my stomach,” McElroy said of the closing. “This school has given me everything that I have. All I wanted to do was graduate, go to college, get a job and come back here and give back to Bishop McDevitt.