PHILADELPHIA >> The postgame talk didn’t take long. His guys knew what they were going to hear. Different year, same pleasantries.
It was a good season, Cardinal O’Hara coach B.J. Hogan told his players. They accomplished a lot. They won more games than they had lost. And they fell a win shy of reaching the state tournament.
Hogan didn’t mention that last part. He didn’t have to.
For the second consecutive season, Cardinal O’Hara lost to Imhotep Charter in the District 12 Class 4A championship game at Philadelphia’s Northwest Supersite. And for the second consecutive season, the Public League’s Panthers will play deeper into November than Hogan’s Lions.
“We repped it. This one just didn’t go our way,” said senior running back Taseer Jones, moments after O’Hara dropped a 40-7 decision to Imhotep. “These are my brothers. I don’t want to play a game with anybody else. But we didn’t get it done.”
Imhotep Charter (11-1), the second-ranked 4A team in Pennsylvania, forced three turnovers in the second half. The Panthers, who beat the Lions last year at this juncture 36-6 in a battle of 10-0 teams, quickly switched a one-score game at halftime into a lopsided decision by the fourth quarter.
The Panthers got two scores from Isheem Young, a Penn State commit. They outgained O’Hara, 393-180, in total offense.
“Everyone’s afraid of the Imhotep name,” Hogan said. “I told our guys, ‘You’re not playing Alabama. You’re playing kids who are the same age as you. You have to go out and go after it.’
“Unfortunately, when you turn the ball over, the game changes. It’s unacceptable.”
Unfettered by an early Imhotep touchdown, Cardinal O’Hara (7-4) looked poised. The Lions responded in short order.
Facing a third-and-13 in Imhotep territory, Lions quarterback Luke Sprague handed off to Jones. The back navigated through Imhotep’s defensive line before getting sandwiched by two linebackers. Jones never stopped his feet, scooting out of the grip of those would-be tacklers and heading 47 yards for a score.
“From what I saw,” said Sprague, “Taseer just broke free. He’s a tough kid and he’s got a lot of heart.”
“I was running hard,” Jones said, “and nobody wrapped me up, so I just kept going. I was still up, and I never stopped moving my legs.”
The touchdown leveled the score at 7 as the first quarter neared a close.
The reality for Cardinal O’Hara’s offense, though, was that Jones’ big play was the only one of its kind for the Lions. They gained three or fewer yards on 38 of their 53 snaps, and averaged only 2.5 yards per play for the game.
O’Hara had no shot at toppling Imhotep Charter with that brand of inconsistent offense. Nonetheless, the Lions headed into the locker room at halftime trailing by only a score.
While a 13-7 game might have sat well with O’Hara, it had Imhotep’s players stewing. First-year Imhotep coach Nick Lincoln said the Panthers required a verbal pick-me-up at intermission. They returned to the field for the third quarter, with O’Hara fans serenading them with chants of “O-ver-rate-ed!”
Imhotep had the last laugh.
Young’s 36-yard punt return for a touchdown extended Imhotep’s lead to 21-7, with 3:36 left in the third quarter. The Panthers didn’t let up, either. Tykee Smith’s 16-yard rushing score five minutes later put the game away. For good measure, Imhotep added two more fourth-quarter touchdowns; a 54-yard interception return by Shymear Williams and a three-yard catch by Yusuf Terry.
“Going through adversity, coming together in the locker room at halftime, it’s what we do and it’s what we did tonight,” said Lincoln, the former Penn Wood head coach.
For Hogan, the punt-return touchdown by Young turned the game into Imhotep’s favor. At that point, with O’Hara’s Justin Santilla kicking from his team’s end zone, the Lions trailed by only six points.
“If we punted how we’ve been punting all game, away from No. 3, it’s still a one-possession game and we’re playing for field position,” Hogan said. “Instead, you go down, 21-7. It takes the wind out of your sails. Usually, the punt is supposed to be on the ground and rolling. That’s what we do. It was mishit, we punted it right to him, and the kid going to Penn State does the rest. We have the guys to bring him to the ground, but he’s just a better player.”
If O’Hara has intentions on returning to the district championship game for three years in a row, the Lions first will have to navigate an offseason that will decimate their roster. More than half of the players who dressed for Friday’s game, 22 of their 42 players, will graduate in June. That includes 10 of Hogan’s 11 starters on defense.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Hogan said, “but we’ll be OK.”
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