Panthers’ rise continues
St. Frances gets off to fast start, beats a top-ranked team for the second time
Back in August, the St. Frances football coaches and players figured this season could go either way. With a mostly new coaching staff and many new players, they had the talent to be good but knew they might struggle to come together.
Twomonths later, it has gone so well that with Friday night’s 32-29 win over No. 1 Archbishop Spalding, the No. 2 Panthers are on the verge of the program’s first No. 1 ranking and have clinched at least a share of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship. Both teams went into the game at Utz Field in Patterson Park undefeated in the conference.
“It’s a great feeling, but it’s not over yet,” said running back Gary Brightwell, one of17 players honored on Senior Night.
The Panthers (9-1) are 5-0 in the conference with only No. 4 Mount Saint Joseph left to play. If they can beat the Gaels on the road next Saturday, they would go from winless to undefeated champions in a single year in the Baltimore area’s toughest football conference.
After rolling over the Cavaliers (7-2, 3-1) early, taking an 18-0 lead at the half on Isaiah Robinson’s touchdown passes to Myles Wright and Jordan Swann, and a 43-yard interception return by Sam Thomas, the Panthers had to hold off a furious Cavaliers comeback.
Spalding quarterback Evan Fochtman, who finished with four touchdowns — three passing — threw scoring passes to Nick Vermillion and DaeSean Winston to cut the lead to18-13 with 3:33 left in the third quarter. Still, the Cavaliers never managed to wrestle the lead from the Panthers.
Cavaliers coach Kyle Schmitt made adjustments at the half to get running back Julius Chestnut more involved and to have Fochtman throw quick passes with some runs thrown in.
“It was a great set. They really didn’t have an answer for it,” Schmitt said, “and to be honest, all of the adjustments are great, but the kids came out and played in the second half. I think the kids got after it a little bit better. I’m really proud of how they played.”
For St. Frances, Brightwell and freshman running back Osman Savage played key roles throughout the game, with Brightwell rushing 13 times for 82 yards and Savage running 23 times for 177 yards. Each scored a touchdown.
“We had two [wide receivers] out,” Brightwell said, “so in order for us to win this game, it would take me and him to play our hardest and run as fast as we can, get through the holes, do what we needed to do and it only took our linemen to help us out. We have the best O-line in Maryland right now in my eyes.”
With the line opening holes and the speedy duo breaking tackles and changing direction, that opened the game up for Robinson to hit the early scoring passes.
“No doubt the line was the key,” St. Frances coach Henry Russell said. “The top five up front with the tight end Myles Wright, Osman Savage and Gary Brightwell — these guys really stepped up. I’m really proud of their efforts and the work they put in all week.”
Early on, the Panthers defense stalled the hottest offense in the A Conference as the Cavaliers came into the game averaging 45 points. They were winning by an average of 32 points. Among their three common A Conference opponents, Spalding won by an average of 27.3 points and St. Frances by 10 points.
Four Spalding turnovers — interceptions by Thomas, Swann and Darion McKenzie and a fumble recovery by Eyabi Anoma — helped the Panthers as three of them led to touchdowns.
The game finished at a blistering pace with three touchdowns in the final three minutes.
The Cavaliers cut the lead to three with three minutes left on Fochtman’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Wintson, but Brightwell scored on a 5-yard run with 2:29 to go to give the Panthers a 32-21 lead with 2:29 left. Fochtman scored on a 1-yard run with 1:54 left — set up by a 55-yard pass to Jamari Jones — but the Panthers recovered the ensuing kick.
This was the Panthers’ second upset of a top-ranked team in two weeks. They also dealt early conference favorite McDonogh a 34-20 setback two weeks ago. With Mount Saint Joseph’s 35-14 loss to No. 3 McDonogh on Friday night, the Panthers are the only team remaining undefeated in the A Conference.
In a conference that does not have playoffs, the Cavaliers can still win a share of the title if they win their remaining games against Gilman and Mount Saint Joseph, and the Gaels (7-2, 3-1) beat the Panthers next week — or it could end in a three-way tie. This would be the first A Conference title for St. Frances or Spalding. Mount Saint Joseph tied Loyola Blakefield for the title in 2007.
Archbishop Spalding’s Larry Brown and Evan Fochtman (11) fail to stop St. Frances’ Sam Thomas (5), who scores on a 43-yard interception return. With the win, the Panthers have clinched at least a share of the MIAA A Conference championship.