By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
HERSHEY – All those thousands of yards, and it came down to a few inches.
If West Catholic High School’s high-flying, thrill-a-minute football team struggles to accept its deflating 35-34, double-overtime loss to Wilmington in last Saturday afternoon’s AA state championship game at Hersheypark Stadium, perhaps the Burrs can contact some former members of the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans.
In the 1999 Super Bowl, the Titans trailed by a touchdown and on the last play of the game, receiver Kevin Dyson was stopped less than one yard from the end zone. It was a miserable and heart-breaking way to lose a championship.
Incredibly, almost the exact same thing happened to West Catholic. The only difference was that the fraction of a yard spelled the difference between a state championship victory and an excruciating defeat.
“I don’t know what to say right now,” said misty-eyed West Catholic star quarterback Curtis Drake. “I can’t find the words.”
Earlier, Drake and a host of teammates had stayed behind in the locker room to try and find the strength to grab their bags and head for a revving bus for what would certainly amount to a long and quiet two-hour ride home.
By now, most know what happened. Despite outgaining their opposition by almost two to one, dominating stretches of the game and owning a 14-0 lead at halftime, the Burrs trailed 35-34 in the second overtime. Rather than try for a game-tying extra point, 10th-year coach Brian Fluck opted to try and end the game right then and there by running Drake with a two-point conversion attempt.
Drake came within inches of getting past Wilmington’s defenders before falling short, setting the stage for a riotous Wilmington celebration and a flood of tears from West Catholic’s players and fans, hundreds of which had made the long trip to root their team to a state title.
Like all controversial calls that end in defeat, some questioned Fluck’s decision to not try to send the game into a third overtime.
Although it is fair to question the decision, it is not appropriate to condemn it; not by a long shot.
If Drake had gained a few more inches, Fluck would have been lauded for putting the ball in the hands of his best player and having the offensive line push its opponents off the ball long enough for Drake to find a path to football’s promised land. If he had chosen to kick and the attempt was blocked, as it nearly was after the first-overtime touchdown, Fluck would have been criticized for being overly conservative.
To his credit, Fluck was not defensive in the slightest when asked about his decision. A football-lifer, Fluck knows all too well that when a team is unable to execute a decisive play, the coach faces the firing squad.
Fluck would have it no other way.
“We have great players and we usually score when we need to,” said Fluck. “We didn’t play as well as we normally do, but I was proud of how hard the guys worked and how well they performed. I love these guys and I told them that.”
After the game, it was a futile effort trying to find one Burr who disagreed with the last call of a season that had included a 14-2 record, a Catholic League spanision AA championship, a District 12 title and a trip to the state championship in what was the Catholic League’s first-ever venture into PIAA competition.
Senior Haleem Hayward, one of the unsung West Catholic stars who against Wilmington snared the 12th interception of his career, defended his coach and his players. He pointed out that West Catholic’s offense, which scored an almost implausible 775 points, felt “totally confident” it was going to score every time it had the ball.
“You look at the guys on our team,” he said, “we have so many players who are unstoppable.”
Players such as Drake (16 carries for 113 yards and one touchdown), Raymond Maples, who scored three touchdowns and ran 178 yards on 19 carries, Rob Hollomon, whose 103 yards included a single-season, city-record 36th touchdown run and receiver Eric Young, who caught nine touchdown passes this season.
Some day, maybe not for a while, the Burrs will look back at their 2008 season and recognize what they accomplished. It was a season that, along with their Catholic school brothers at AAA level Archbishop Wood, made a name for Philadelphia Catholic League football.
No amount of inches can take away West Catholic’s impact on their school community. In summary, it was a year about which to be emphatically proud.
“I’m most proud of how these guys represented West Catholic so well,” said Fluck.
The same can be said for the West Catholic coach.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.