LOWER GWYNEDD >> Lansdale Catholic’s Ifeanyi Okorji came to practice on Friday nursing a 103-degree fever, leaving his status for Saturday’s clash with rival Bonner-Prendergast very much uncertain.
“I texted him (Saturday morning) and asked if he was gonna play,” Crusader coach Tom Kirk said, “and he said ‘coach, I woke up in a puddle of sweat so I think my fever’s gone.’
“We needed him tonight and he played outstanding.”
Throughout the evening, Okorji punctured Bonner’s pass pocket, corralled Friar runners in the backfield, and came up with the game’s biggest turnover, recovering a Bonner fumble in LC territory midway through the fourth quarter, with the Crusaders clinging to a one-point lead.
“That was just instinct,” said Okorji, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound force along the defensive line. “I just saw the ball squirt free and landed on top of it.
“The defense came up great. At times we were sloppy, but we came back at it though.”
Okorji’s fumble recovery set up the Crusaders for the clinching score, as LC powered its way to a 16-8 win over the Friars at Wissahickon High School, earning LC its first victory of the season.
Many heroes emerged for the Crusaders (1-2) in an inspired second half, on a night where the team battled cramps and fatigue and had little left in the tank when they exited the field in victory.
“All of our kids are walking around like Frankenstein because they’re all cramped up,” Kirk said with a smile.
The Crusader defense shut out the Friars (1-3) in the second half of this Philadelphia Catholic League Blue Division battle, forcing one turnover and stopping Bonner on downs on LC’s side of the 50 on three separate occasions.
But if there was one play on which the game turned, it was the LC special teams that provided it, midway through the third quarter.
“First off, that blocked punt,” Okorji said. “That’s what made the difference.”
With Bonner protecting an 8-0 lead and facing a fourth down at its own 17, the Crusaders’ Tyler Scheetz raced in and blocked the Friars’ punt attempt out of the end zone, giving LC its first points of the night — a safety — and making it an 8-2 game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Matt Casee fielded the ball at his own 30, saw a seam, and was off, racing away untouched to a 70-yard return and — along with an extra-point kick by Brandan Menges — put the Crusaders ahead for the first time, 9-8.
“The blocked punt gave us all the momentum in the world,” Casee said, “and the blocking was set up and I just followed the hole.
“We were full speed from there.”
The Friars followed with a nine-play drive that reached the LC 23, but Bonner could get no closer and the Crusaders took over.
Suddenly, a game that Bonner seemed to have under control in the first half was slipping away. The Friars opened the scoring on a one-yard touchdown burst by Shawn Harmon in the second quarter. The snap on the extra-point attempt was high, causing Alex Coll to take off running with the ball, his linemen helping to power and push him over the goal line for a two-point conversion and an 8-0 Bonner lead.
But it was a missed opportunity at the end of the first half that proved costly for Bonner. The Friars drove the ball from their own 17 to the LC eight, but with just seconds to go and no timeouts left, a pass from Evan Raiburn to Kyrin Jackson came up two yards short of the end zone, and the clock ran out with Bonner unable to add to its lead.
“We had a pretty good handle on the game and we needed to score at the end of the first half,” Bonner coach Jack Muldoon said. “I think if we score at the end of the first half, it’s a completely different outcome.
“And we can’t give up a (kickoff return). Mistakes hurt us. I give credit to Lansdale. They hung in there. We definitely had a chance to put them in a hole right before half and we didn’t.”
Behind 9-8 in the fourth, the Friars — riding the legs of Joseph Hartley-Vittoria (21 car/63 yds) and 100 yards receiving by Coll — drove to the Crusader 38. But on 1st-and-10, LC’s line swarmed in, knocked the ball free of Hartley-Vittoria’s grasp, and Okorji pounced on it with six minutes left to play.
The Crusader offense then did its finest work of the night, with quarterback Michael Basilii finding lanes and alleys to run through, gaining 38 yards on the drive. His four-yard run with 1:47 to play extended LC’s lead to 16-8.
“That was huge. At the end there (on 4th-and-4 at the 26), Mike did a nice job of running the bootleg and getting a big first down. We needed that.”
All that was left to do was one more stop by the defense, and with Bonner driving, on 2nd-and-10 from the Friar 29, Okorji and Seamus Horan sacked Raiburn for a five-yard loss.
Two plays later, on 4th-and-15, Coll came up with a big catch, a 19-yard gain to keep Bonner alive. But on 4th-and-10 from the Friar 43, LC pressure surrounded Raiburn, who was forced to take off running, stopped one yard short of the first down by David Saulino.
“It feels fantastic,” Okorji said of getting that first win of the season. “But we gotta get back to work.”