HERSHEY, Pa – Kolbe Burrell’s first touchdown was a burst into the open and a sprint to the end zone, a showcase of speed.
His second touchdown was more symbolic of another St. Joseph’s Prep victory in another PIAA Class 6A championship game.
Hit again and again on his way to the end zone, Burrell bounced off three would-be tacklers and reached the football across the goal line. It was all toughness and effort.
“I love being the workhorse for this football team,” Burrell said after St. Joseph’s Prep’s 35-13 victory over Central Dauphin Saturday night at Hersheypark Stadium. “If it had to be me. It had to be me.”
It had to be Burrell.
It also had to be linebacker Liam Johnson and defensive linemen Anthony Leneghan and Blake Romano.
It had to be tackle Matt Lombardi and guards Matt Mcgeary and Casey Stephenson and tight end Dan Stevenson.
Seniors all, they led the way with a fierce, physically dominant performance that produced the Prep’s second straight state title, third in the last four years and fifth since 2013.
“I’m just so proud of these guys,” Johnson said as Prep players and fans milled around the field, hugging and posing for pictures to commemorate a season that ended with 11 straight victories.
Said Stephenson, “We’ve been grinding all year, grinding all year just to get here and walk off this field this way.”
St. Joseph’s Prep (12-2) won with defense, special teams and a dominant running game. Burrell, a Buffalo recruit, carried 25 times for 193 yards and the Hawks’ final two touchdowns.
“Words can’t even describe this,” Burrell said. “It’s just an unbelievable feeling. I love these guys. These guys are all my brothers.”
Central Dauphin (12-3), the District 3 champion, had advanced to the state finals with a 65-44 victory over District 1 champion Downingtown West in the semifinals.
But the Rams’ ground game was unable to find its footing against Prep’s defense. Central Dauphin managed just three first downs in the first half, one by penalty, and generated just seven points before a meaningless touchdown on the game’s final play against the Hawks’ reserve defenders.
“We were so prepared,” Johnson said. “Lots of late night at the Prep this week, preparing for this game."
Johnson, a Princeton recruit, led the way with five sacks.
“He was all over the field,” St. Joseph’s coach Tim Roken said of Johnson.
Junior quarterback Malik Cooper, starting for the fourth game in a row in place of star quarterback Kyle McCord, threw a pair of touchdown passes in the first half to juniors Sahmir Hagans and Marvin Harrison Jr.
Hagans snatched a 7-yard slant from Cooper to give the Hawks a 7-0 lead, and Harrison made the best individual play of the game, turning a deep crossing pattern into a 34-yard touchdown with a lunging grab and several swerving moves around Central Dauphin defenders
The Hawks also made another big play on special teams, continuing a trend that began when McCord, an Ohio State recruit, was forced to the sideline with a knee injury before the Nov. 16 city championship game against Northeast.
This time, junior Sean Walker made a diving punt block, and sophomore Maurice Clark picked up the football and rambled 20 yards for a touchdown and 14-0 lead late in the first quarter.
“Block a kick, win a game,” Roken said.
But while the underclassmen made their share of big plays, this victory belonged to the Hawks’ seniors.
This is a team loaded with young talent, especially in the junior class. But without McCord and junior linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who missed the second half of the season with a broken arm, the Hawks were forced to become a little more of a gritty team.
It was defense, special teams and the running game for most of the playoff run, although Cooper and Harrison combined for that remarkable touchdown pass in the state semifinal victory over Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic.
It was a senior-heavy show in the state final, with Burrell pounding at the Central Dauphin defense again and again behind the senior-laden offensive line.
It was Johnson and Romano disrupting the Rams’ offense with a ferocious pass rush and sure tackling.
It was the seniors raising the trophy on a cold, clear night in a place that, for them, truly felt like the sweetest place on earth.
“There’s no better feeling in the world,” Leneghan said. “Just to see my guys, see how happy they are, it hits me deep down in my heart.”
St. Jospeh’s Prep 14 7 7 7 – 35
Central Dauphin 0 0 7 6 – 13
SJ: Sahmir Hagans 7 pass form Malik Cooper (Antonio Chadha kick)
SJ: Maurice Clark 20 return of blocked punt (Chadha kick)
SJ: Marvin Harrison 34 pass from Cooper (Chadha kick)
CD: Timmy Smith 19 run (Ahren Stauffer kick)
SJ: Kolbe Burrell 55 run (Chadha kick)
SJ: Burrell 9 run (Chadha kick)