By John Knebels
Special to the CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – As Saturday night’s near-freezing winds left gloveless fans searching for cushioned pockets, Father Judge and La Salle College High School took the field at Northeast High School to battle for the Catholic League Class AAAA football championship. While the two teams warmed up, many people were still talking about how La Salle had stunned St. Joseph’s Prep, 31-28, in the semis one week earlier.

It was an outstanding win without question, but unless the Explorers discovered a way to defeat the Crusaders, it would have been a hollow triumph at best.{{more}}

“It was great beating the Prep, but this was even greater,” said quarterback Drew Loughery. “It would not have meant anything if we didn’t win the championship.”

Not to worry. Despite a dogged effort by gritty Father Judge, La Salle defeated the Crusaders, 28-20.

As he has done all season long, Loughery confidently established that for Judge to win its first title since 1984, it would have to find a way to stop La Salle’s much-ballyhooed aerial assault.

While the Crusaders did contain Loughery into a 12-for-19, 144-yard contribution, unfortunately for them, three of those 12 completions went for touchdowns. Meanwhile, La Salle kicker Mike Bennett provided two big field goals and two extra points.

“They’re a good team,” said Loughery. “We knew we’d have our hands full.”

Indeed. Father Judge had defeated La Salle during the regular season, 28-14, a game the Explorers had led 14-0 before Judge engineered 28 straight unanswered points.

This game, however, was different. Led by two defensive touchdowns, one on a 10-yard interception return by Conner Thompson and another on Adam Nowak’s 23-yard fumble jaunt, the Crusaders led 14-13 early in the fourth quarter.

But with 8:21 remaining in regulation, Loughery threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Mike Donohoe and the two reversed roles for a successful two-point conversion connection, and La Salle led, 21-14.

Undaunted, the Crusaders answered when quarterback Tony Smith fired a 28-yard scoring strike to Tom Ryan less than two minutes later. Father Judge missed the extra-point attempt, so La Salle still led 21-20 with 6:45 left.

“It was important that we stayed aggressive,” said Drew Gordon, who won his second title in three years as La Salle’s head coach. “At that point, we still had to think about putting points on the board.”

Another 12-yard touchdown pass from Loughery to Donohoe, Loughery’s 23rd of the season, gave La Salle a 28-20 lead.

Although the Crusaders, minus quarterback Smith who was injured after being tackled by La Salle’s Ryan Eidenshink with under two minutes left, were able to traverse to the Explorers’ 41-yard line, they could get no closer, and Catholic League competition bid adieu for the 2008 season.

“This means so much to the players and coaches,” said Loughery, whose Explorers will return to Northeast High Saturday at noon to play Public League champion George Washington for the bragging rights to the pseudo-city title and a trip to the PIAA state tournament. “We worked really hard. Everyone did. We kept getting better as the season went on, and when we had to play our best, we did.”

John Knebels can be reached at