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Wild, weird and wonderful triumph for Ringwalt, Episcopal Academy

MALVERN >> The kick was up and Connor Ringwalt didn’t know what to think.

The Episcopal Academy senior thought it was good coming off his foot. But then he noticed the ball’s trajectory.

“I saw that it was hooking left,” he said.

Moments earlier, Malvern’s Brandon Chiazza was in the same spot. With the Friars trailing by three points, Chiazza lined up for a 29-yard field goal with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter. Ringwalt also would attempt a 29-yarder in the final seconds.

And this is where things get weird.

Chiazza’s game-tying boot clanked up the left post and through. Tie game. Ringwalt’s 29-yard try did the same thing. The ball smacked off the left post and over the crossbar with no time left on the clock. Both officials raised their arms in the air.

Ringwalt’s kick was good.

Episcopal Academy's Jon’avin Freeman leaps over the pile for a score that put EA up 34-9. They hung on to win, 37-34. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Episcopal Academy’s Jon’avin Freeman leaps over the pile for a score that put EA up 34-9. They hung on to win, 37-34. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Ringwalt was mobbed by his teammates in celebration. Episcopal Academy had won in walkoff fashion, 37-34, and avoided the sting of a potentially damaging loss. The Churchmen (6-0) had witnessed their 34-9 lead disintegrate after Chiazza’s field goal evened the score with 46 seconds to play.

Ringwalt’s heroics immediately erased the memories of the tense moments in the second half when the Churchmen just couldn’t stop the bleeding. Malvern was embarrassed by its first-half performance and emerged from the locker room a changed team.

“We knew they would give us a battle,” Ringwalt said. For him, making a clutch field goal was no big deal.

“We go through that every day at practice,” Ringwalt said. “Not with that kind of pressure, but I knew my teammates had my back. The operation was good and I knew I just had to do my job.”

With emotion in his voice, EA coach Todd Fairlie gave an empowering post-game speech to his players.

PHOTO GALLERY: Episcopal Academy vs. Malvern Prep

“Something from the beginning of the year, and it’s nice to see the theme come through, is that good football teams are close and great football teams are really tight. They love each other and care for each other,” said Fairlie, who coached the Churchmen to their first victory over Malvern in four years. “That was the message from day one and that’s what I wanted to say again. … And I told them before the game that we’re going to win this because we love each other and we’re going to stick together no matter what. if that’s not true after tonight … to give it all up and to get it back, it’s pretty amazing.”

Episcopal quarterback CJ McAnally engineered the winning drive. He found Dee Wil Barlee on a running back screen in the waning moments. Barlee rumbled all the way to the 13-yard line to give McAnally a chance.

But how did Episcopal get to that point? The Churchmen played a near-flawless opening half. McAnally threw for three TDs — including a pair to stud tight end Kyle Virbitsky — and closed the second quarter with a miracle catch. Jon’avin Freeman took the snap out of the shotgun and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone. The ball was tipped by a Malvern defender then caught by McAnally as time expired.

Episcopal went into the break with a comfortable, 27-9 advantage. And it got tighter when Freeman scored from a yard out to make it 34-9 early in the third quarter.

“You’ve got to give a lot of props to Malvern. They showed a lot of heart,” said McAnally, who was 9 of 15 passing with 242 yards and amassed a team-high 93 rushing yards. “They did not make it easy for us at all. It’s just a testament to our team, you know? We’re a pretty tight team and that showed tonight. This is one game we had marked on our calendars. For us, the seniors, we had never beaten Malvern before.”

 Episcopal Academy's CJ McAnally fights off Malvern Prep tacklers during a 37-34 win Friday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Episcopal Academy’s CJ McAnally fights off Malvern Prep tacklers during a 37-34 win Friday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

McAnally’s father, uncles and grandparents all attended Malvern. He came very close to following in his family’s footsteps.

“This, for me, was my big game,” McAnally said. “I thought I was going here, but it didn’t work out that way. That’s why I love playing here. It’s such a special feeling.”

Virbitsky had three catches for 113 yards. He caught a ball over the middle and sprinted 70 yards for the game’s first touchdown in the first quarter. At linebacker/defensive line, he was a menace.

“At halftime, we were pretty excited,” Virbitsky said. “Maybe too excited. But, you know what? At the end we got the job done. A couple of times our backs were against the wall and we kept fighting back.”

EA middle linebacker Brian Snow was a machine, too, especially in the first half. He recorded a sack, a pass deflection and several big hits in the backfield. Snow knocked starting quarterback Kevin Doyle out of the game with a sack late in the second quarter.

The Friars (3-3, 0-1), however, received a huge boost from backup quarterback Drew Gunther, a sophomore who flourished in a difficult situation. Gunther displayed his immense talent by leading the Friars back from the abyss. He was 16 of 24 for 228 yards and a touchdown. His 1-yard scoring plunge in the fourth quarter pulled Malvern within three points with 6:29 to go.

But the Churchmen reached in deep to finish what they had started Friday night. When it was over, they were able to breathe again and thank one another.

“This,” Virbitsky said, “is what we are all about. We never gave up.”

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