His team was trailing by 21 points, and nothing was going right on either side of the ball.
So why was Malvern Prep senior C.J. Mooney still brimming with confidence?
“When you have the skill position players that we have, you’re never out of a game,” said Mooney, a two-way starter at tight end and left defensive end. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but I really wasn’t worried at all.”
Sure enough, Malvern Prep’s skill position players turned up the tempo, and when the final seconds ticked away, the Friars had emerged with a thrilling 34-27 Thanksgiving Day victory over St. Joseph’s Prep before a packed house at Villanova Stadium.
The victory cemented an incredible season for the Friars, who finished a perfect 10-0. It was the fourth undefeated season on the resume of Hall of Fame coach Gamp Pellegrini, whose 42 years as a head coach includes the past 31 at Malvern.
When you consider that Pellegrini has amassed 278 wins against only 144 losses and nine ties along the way, it’s no wonder many of the Malvern players did a double take when Pellegrini told them early in the year that this season’s squad might be the best ever in the storied program’s history.
“That was pretty unbelievable,” said Mooney. “He has a lot of teams to select from. I don’t think he says things without thinking.”
When he was told that Pellegrini had labeled him “the glue that keeps us together and someone who always does the grunt work,” the 6-foot, 4-inch, 235-pound Mooney could hardly believe it.
“Wow,” he said. “Well, I know my role on this team. When we throw the ball, we’re throwing to Joe (Price). I made little plays on offense and did my thing on defense.”
Although there are many from which to choose, the latest triumph was among the Friars’ best.
Last year under almost identical circumstances, the Prep ruined Malvern’s attempt at a perfect season with a resounding 33-6 thumping. Early in the second quarter this season, it appeared as though the Hawks would once again spoil the Friars’ Turkey Day when they scored their third touchdown of the day to go up 21-0.
According to Mooney, assistance was then provided by an unlikely source – the St. Joseph’s Prep fans.
“After they got a big lead, their crowd started chanting, ‘Just like last year,'” said Mooney, a product of SS. Philip and James Parish in Exton. “I think that helped get us going. We were like, ‘Not quite.'”
The Friars responded with a 34-yard touchdown run by quarterback Billy Conners late in the second quarter, and because Pellegrini had opted to kick off rather than receive after the opening coin toss, Malvern would have another opportunity to cut into its deficit in the beginning of the third quarter.
With momentum clearly swaying in their direction, the Friars meticulously moved down the field and scored on a 17-yard pass from Conners to Mooney. A few minutes later, Conners and senior star receiver Joe Price connected on a 40-yard scoring strike to tie the game at 21.
Malvern took its first lead of the game in the fourth quarter via a highlight-reel-worthy play when Conners found Price in the flat, and after fooling a Prep defensive back with an athletic maneuver, Price rambled 71 yards for a touchdown.
Undaunted, the Prep tied the game in its next possession when Mike Yeager (28 carries for 193 yards) scored from 15 yards out. But unfortunately for the Hawks, the Friars had plenty of time to march down field for the winning tally.
For the third time in the game, Conners (15 of 23, 268 yards, four touchdowns) tossed a 27-yard touchdown pass to Price (7 catches for 172 yards) to give the Friars a 34-27 victory and a perfect season that included an undisputed Inter-Academic League title.
For players on Malvern’s squad who have played on varsity since their sophomore seasons – such as fullback James Connelly, running back Neil Willis, Conners and Mooney – the collective varsity record over the past three years stands at a showy 27-3.
“I’m really proud of all the kids,” Pellegrini said.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.