CHELTENHAM >> There’s going out on top, then there’s what Branden Mack did Thursday morning.
The Cheltenham senior quarterback/safety, in his final high school game on the 100th anniversary of a fierce rivalry went out a delivered a performance to remember as he led the Panthers to a 41-36 shootout win over backyard rival Abington in the teams’ annual Thanksgiving game. With the game, played every year since 1915 with a handful of exceptions, in danger of fading from the schedule, it was a quite the game to possibly go out on.
Mack, who has verbally committed to Temple to play football, threw for 221 yards with two touchdowns, ran for 92 more, caught a 17-yard pass and covered Abington’s ace receiver George Reid. He was in full command, changing plays at the line and looking unstoppable for most of the morning.
“In all honesty, you have no idea,” Panthers coach Joe Gro said. “He changed 10 plays and all of them were successful.”
It was also a possible farewell for Gro, who has helmed Cheltenham for 28 seasons. The veteran coach said he hasn’t made any decision on his future yet and more than a couple of alumni came up to encourage him to keep going.
Ironically, the game didn’t look anything like what it would become after 12 minutes. The teams played a scoreless first quarter and it took another minute before Mack hit senior tight end Akeem Browne for a 32-yard TD to get things going.
The Panthers had just four seniors play Thursday. Tony Watson anchored the line while the other three – Mack, Browne and Matt Tuszl, manufactured most of the passing offense.
“There’s only four of us so we try to set the tone for everyone,” Browne said. “Usually teams have a lot of seniors and leaders but there’s just four of us, so we try to lead and be the example and show everyone the right way to go.”
Browne said that one of the big adjustments the offense made was using him at tight end when Abington’s safeties would back up and he was able to gain 151 yards on eight grabs.
Abington got on the board with 2:06 left in the half when sophomore Darryl Davis-McNeil, sporting a new jersey number, went in from a yard out. The underclassman had a nice game, rushing for 127 yards and three scores while also taking a screen pass 77 yards for a TD. With the Ghosts losing a few key passing weapons, Davis-McNeil looks like a building block for next season.
Counting the rush TD, the teams scored three times in the final 2:06 with Abington going up 14-7 on Davis-McNeil’s second TC and the Panthers making it 14-13 at half when Tuszl caught a 19-yard TD from Mack on the last play.
“(Mack) is a phenomenal player and that was the thing, we couldn’t stop him in key spots,” Abington coach Tim Sorber said. “He made plays on fourth down. These seniors, they stayed around and gave everything they had those last couple of games. You hate to see them leave on that note.”
The scoring spree was only getting started. Cheltenham junior tailback Jarrett Jenkins ran for the first of his three scores with 9:53 left in the third quarter. Jenkins rushed for 69 yards while freshman Yasin Abdul-Haqq pounded away for 155 yards on 15 carries. In total, Cheltenham rushed for 313 yards on 42 carries as a team.
Abington tied it at 21-21 on a 25-yard run by Davis-McNeal though the Panthers came right back to go up 29-21 on a seven yard run by Jenkins and a two-point pass by Mack. The critical play on the drive was an 11-yard run by Mack on 4th-and-7 where he calmly waited for Abington’s rush to overrun him, then took off into space.
“I can’t even describe how good I’m feeling right now,” a beaming Mack said after the game. “There’s so emotion built up in me. All the ups and downs, the wins and losses. I would take this win over any other.”
Again, Abington came right back and scored when quarterback David Kretschman (13-24, 251 yards) hit Davis-McNeil on a screen. A defender slipped and the sophomore was gone. Kretschman hit the two-point pass and it was knotted again, but not for long.
Mack and Browne connected again, this time for 46 yards on a 3rd-and-7 from midfield, to set up a four-yard Jenkins run. Mack said a big part of his success was communicating possible changes with Gro, then going out and delivering on them.
“If we do our job, we’ll win,” Mack said. “That’s all you have to say.”
The Panthers failed on a two-point try after the score, so when Abington marched back down and scored on a one-yard keeper by Kretschman, they went up 36-35 on the kick with 5:07 left. Cheltenham faced a 4th-and-3 from its 25 when Mack did it again, running for nine yards to keep the drive alive.
He then hit Tuszl on back-to-back plays for 15 more yards, then two plays later on a 3rd-and-9 from the Ghost 43, Abdul-Haqq broke free for 39 yards. Jenkins needed two carries, but he picked up the four yards and got in the endzone for the go-ahead score with 1:53 left. With the two point try failing, the Panthers clung to a 41-36 edge.
“I was scared to death with scoring and giving them a little bit of time at the end,” Gro said. “Neither of us could seem to stop anyone so I was scared. But we were able to hold at least.”
Abington picked up seven yards but a fourth down pass went incomplete, allowing Mack to take one last kneel down and close out his high school career on top.
“It’s a good feeling,” Browne said. “We’re happy the four of us could carry a team, well, not even carry them, they did it with us. We showed everyone the right way to go and they came along and followed through.”
Both Gro and Sorber seemed resigned to the fact the series would not continue on Thanksgiving Day. With the new six-class system taking effect next year, the season will end a week earlier, meaning it could be four or five weeks of waiting for non-playoff teams.
“I think this is the last one,” Sorber said. “You can’t do it. It hurts the kids, you have kids that play winter sports and you don’t want to sit around four or five weeks.”
“I don’t see how it can happen that we’ll play on Thanksgiving,” Gro said. “This is cool, I have dozens of former players here, we probably have a thousand fans here. It’s a shame.”
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