WHITEMARSH >>It was La Salle ball, and second-and-20 from the Prep 24. The score: St. Joe’s Prep 28, La Salle: 23. There were about 55 seconds left on the clock. A nearly-lost fumble and an illegal procedure penalty had sapped the momentum out of a promising drive, and the Explorers were in desperate need of a big play.
Then, the ball was snapped. Chris Ferguson dropped back and zipped one through the middle of the field to Nick Rinella. He was double covered and nearly falling backwards, but it didn’t matter. He stuck one hand up — nothing short of a prayer — and wrestled the ball into his chest while falling into the end zone.
With that fall came six points and the Philadelphia Catholic League Class AAAA championship. The catch put a perfectly-fitting exclamation point on La Salle’s thrilling 29-28 win over St. Joe’s Prep, a contest that will likely go down in the annals as one of the rivarly’s best ever.
“I just stuck my hand up there and I was juggling it,” Rinella said. “I was thinking, ‘this is for the Philadelphia Catholic League championship.’”
It was just one play, but it carried a season’s worth of importance.
“There was no way I was letting it drop,” Rinella said. “I held on for dear life.”
“That moment,” Syaire Madden, La Salle’s feature back, said, “Right there, he couldn’t have made a bigger play.”
The Explorers failed the two-point conversion attempt (it would have put them a field goal ahead), but kept the Hawks from doing anything with the remaining 45 seconds on the clock to seal the game.
“We knew that it was going to be a dogfight,” Rinella said. “It was going to be a boxing match for 15 rounds. Man, the kids on this team, they deserve it.”
Rinella’s day won’t stand out in the box score — he finished with just 30 yards on four receptions, though nobody really stood out for the Explorers on the stat sheet. Madden finished with 26 carries for 76 yards and a score, and Ferguson tallied 191 yards on 13-of-25 passing with a touchdown and a pair of picks, one of which went for a touchdown.
But, they came through when the team needed it most.
And boy did they need it. La Salle found themselves down double digits twice, a 14-zilch deficit in the first quarter, and a 28-17 one in the fourth.
“We’ve been here before,” La Salle coach John Steinmetz said. “We just tried to play with a little bit of poise and get back in it.”
They did that well enough — a Ferguson pass to Charles Headin and Jared Walls’ 51-yard interception return for six knotted the score at 14. They also had a chance at the lead going into the half, but Ferguson’s aforementioned pick-six went into the hands of Richard Carr, who took it back 96 yards to the house.
“I just told the kids at half-time that it’s all in the past,” Steinmetz said. “We were going to get the ball to open the third.”
La Salle didn’t score again until Matthew Savage knocked in a 21-yard field goal nearly 10 minutes into the half, cutting the gap to four points.
Right away, the Explorers were dealt another blow by the Prep. It took Benny Walls just one play to scamper 55 yards and put the Hawks up by double digits again.
“Being down more than 10 points makes it tough,” Steinmetz said. “At that point, we’d been talking to the kids about playing all-in.”
It’s what they’d been doing all season to that point. Since their blowout loss to the Prep in mid-October, La Salle’s been dedicating one practice per week, as well as their bye, to gearing up for the Hawks in the PCL playoffs.
Needless to say, it paid off. Madden barreled through for a hard-fought three-yard touchdown run two drives later, and the rest, quite literally, is history.
“We played four quarters of football here today,” Rinella said. “Coach has been preaching that, and that’s what we did.”
La Salle now has, for the first time since 2012, the league’s AAAA trophy back in its possession. With it, the Explorers will face Simon Gratz next Saturday for the District 12 championship.
“The coaches preach that we can’t get too high, or too low,” Madden said.
“If we’re high,” like they certainly are after this one, “We can’t act like we don’t need to work,” he went on.
That’s not to say they won’t take a moment to bask in the glow of a championship, though.
“We’re going to enjoy it this weekend for sure,” Rinella said. “But when Monday rolls around, it’s in the past.”
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