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Benched, Burton comeback carries Academy Park to crown

SPRINGFIELD >> Two District 1 titles in a row. Three in the last four years. A state semifinal appearance.

No, none of this gets old for the Academy Park Knights. Especially not after a thrilling 24-18 victory Friday over Springfield to earn the Class 5A District 1 championship. They will face mighty Archbishop Wood next week for a berth in the state title game, but that daunting task was hardly on anyone’s mind on this rainy, yet beautiful, night.

Not after the way Academy Park (13-1) won this game.

“This was a game, man. It felt great, it felt great stepping up when my team needed me,” lineman Togba Porte said. “Amara (Kenneth) stepping up. It just felt great.”

The exuberant Knights were so excited they celebrated a bit early, giving coach Jason Vosheski a Gatorade bath with nine seconds left. But, after running those final ticks off, they stormed the field after the clock hit zero. There were hugs, there were tears, there were a plethora of photos with friends and family.

Dazhon Miller, who had a 62-yard scoring run for Academy Park, works the ball through a gauntlet of Springfield defenders, including Dan Gluck and Dwayne Snipes. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Dazhon Miller, who had a 62-yard scoring run for Academy Park, works the ball through a gauntlet of Springfield defenders, including Dan Gluck and Dwayne Snipes. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Nobody wanted to leave. Everyone wanted to soak this in.

“It’s amazing seeing everything that we started in January, and we built, come to fruition,” Vosheski said. “And the kids played tremendous.”

Academy Park, down 15-8 early in the third quarter after Springfield workhorse Ja’Den McKenzie’s 41-yard touchdown run, was staring at a season-ending loss. The resilient Cougars had run off 15 straight points and had all the momentum in the world.

Enter Dazhon Miller, whose 62-yard scoring run — two plays after McKenzie sent Springfield into euphoria — tied the game. The defense then held the Cougars to a 34-yard Jack Coary field goal (Springfield quarterback Johnny Fanelli was injured midway through the drive), which set up Kareem Burton to make amends.

Benched earlier in the game, Burton took a jet sweep 46 yards to the house to give Academy Park a 22-18 lead. Key lead blocking from John Ellis helped make it happen. With exactly one minute to go in a wild third quarter, the Knights had their lead back.

“Man, it was amazing. I wouldn’t be able to do it without my O-line and my receivers blocking for me,” Burton explained. “I just followed them and they took me to the end zone.”

The Academy Park defense took it from there.

Springfield’s Ja’Den McKenzie, who rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns, breaks through the line for a big gain against Academy Park. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Springfield’s Ja’Den McKenzie, who rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns, breaks through the line for a big gain against Academy Park. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Brandon DiChiacchio relieved Fanelli, picked up two first downs, but the Springfield drive fizzled out. The Knights ate nearly four minutes off the clock before punting back to the Cougars, who sent Fanelli back in, but he just went backwards and was re-injured.

Smartly, though, Springfield took a safety with two minutes, 16 seconds left instead of punting the ball from its own seven. The Cougars recovered the subsequent onside kick and moved the chains twice, but a mess of Knights met

DiChiacchio in the backfield and forced a fumble with under a minute to go.

“I knew we would (do that),” Porte said. “All we had to do was keep our composure — that’s it. We just had to keep our heads up and we just had to stay calm, that’s it.”

Springfield (12-2) made the Knights waste every second off the clock, but the celebration was eventually on for the visitors. The hosts were distraught.

“We had to back each other up, but unfortunately, we came up short tonight,” wide receiver/defensive back Greg Tamaccio said. “We had Brandon coming in as the backup, we just had to back him up and we tried. We just came up a little short.”

Fanelli threw for 87 yards, DiChiacchio for 35. The real star for Springfield was McKenzie, who carried 25 of his team’s 37 rushing attempts for 167 yards. Combined with his 22 receiving yards, the junior had all but 30 of his team’s total offense.

The stats were irrelevant to him considering the heartbreaking result.

“It’s got to be next-man up, and we just couldn’t finish,” McKenzie said. “That’s all that matters, we’ve got to finish. It doesn’t matter how you start, but it’s how you finish.”

Academy Park started strong, taking an 8-0 lead on Miller’s eight-yard run early in the first quarter — part of his team-high 89 rushing yards. Springfield hung around, earned a safety late in the second quarter and took the lead on McKenzie’s 11-yard run 84 seconds before halftime.

At that point, momentum was squarely on Springfield’s side. But, Academy Park simply refused to relinquish its crown. The king stayed the king.

“I think some of the kids expected to get to this point, if they sat in the coaches office maybe they would think a little differently,” Vosheski said. “You fight and you fight and you fight to get the kids to believe, and they believed from day one.”

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