HERSHEY >> The champs, darned close to being proverbial, finally met their match.
St. Joseph’s Prep saw its shot at a second consecutive PIAA Class 6A football championship dissolve on the snow-covered frozen turf of Hersheypark Stadium Saturday night with a 41-21 loss to undefeated WPIAL champion Pine-Richland.
With the loss, the Hawks also saw a 27-game winning streak — dating to the 2015 Catholic League 4A final in a loss to rival LaSalle — come to an end. St. Joe’s Prep was also stopped going for a fourth state title in five seasons, two coming under the old 4A classification.
“We never thought about streaks or anything like that,” veteran Prep head coach Gabe Infante said. “We’re very disciplined in our approach. We’re day-to-day. We don’t buy into rankings or any of that stuff. We never talk about it. We always talk about going 1-0, 1-0. To accomplish something like that (the streak), that’s the mindset you’ve gotta have.
“I’m very proud of what the kids accomplished this year. One moment doesn’t define us.”
It was not the sharpest of nights for the Catholic League and Eastern Pa. 6A powerhouse. The Prep lost four fumbles, including an early one at the goal line heading in for a score, to short-circuit several offensive forays. A 94-yard punt return for a score by James Cherry was also wiped out on a holding call at midfield late in the first quarter. Quarterback Marquez McCray was 12 of 35 for 121 yards, with one touchdown pass.
“Woulda, coulda, shoulda,” Infante said. “Bottom line is we’ve got to be able to overcome that stuff and tonight we didn’t. Last week (a wild 53-49 win over Coatesville in the 6A semifinal), we did. I feel bad for our kids, because you never want things to go that way. You’re gonna lose, you don’t want the kids to have to deal mistakes like putting the ball on the ground.”
Still, Prep trailed just 14-7 at the break. It fell apart during a third quarter in which Pine-Richland was handed several short fields and the Rams took full advantage by scoring on three drives, all clocking in at four plays or less.
“They played on a short field a lot tonight,” Infante said. “There are only so many times you can up with a turnover, or a stop in the red zone. It was difficult.”
Pine-Richland quarterback Phil Jurkovec — a 6-foot-5, 220-pound Notre Dame commit playing in his final high school game — slashed the Hawks for 200 yards passing on 15 of 27 attempts and one touchdown, while rushing for four more, showing on the brightest stage why the Irish locked him up as a sophomore.
Jurkovec rushed three times for 23 yards on the Rams’ third possession of the third quarter, capping it with a 13-yard run for a score and a 21-7 lead. On Pine-Richland’s next drive, a two-play affair, he found Jordan Crawford for 50 yards to the Prep 1 and took it over on the next snap to make it 28-7.
“The word to describe this is ‘fulfilling’,” Jurkovec said. “Because of how much effort and time. You’re always thinking about this. It’s always in the back of your mind. It feels almost like a relief too, because of how much work we put into it and the result was good. We’re the champions and it’s a great feeling.”
Crawford set up the short field theme on the opening kickoff by returning it to the Prep 31. A pass interference call, a Crawford rush for 15 yards and a plunge from Jurkovec gave the Rams a 7-0 lead 28 seconds into the game.
After some miscues — including Cherry’s fumble at the P-R 1 into the end zone, recovered by Tyler King on a hit by Raymond Falcone — the Hawks dented the scoreboard with an 11-play, 48-yard drive, the longest of the night by either team, ending with Marques Mason going in from five yards out to knot the contest at 7 late in the half.
But the Rams grabbed the lead at the half, set up by Crawford’s 26-yard return of a short punt to the Prep 25. Jurkovec did the rest, scoring from 15 yards out on an option keeper to give Pine-Richland the lead heading into the break.
Speedy Prep sophomore running back Kolbe Burrell gashed the Rams for 158 yards on 13 totes, a 12.2 average, and found the end zone from 56 yards out to cut Pine-Richland’s lead to 28-14 with 3:14 left in the third quarter.
But Jurkovec marshaled a 4-play, 52-yard response in just 1:39, set up by Crawford’s kickoff return to midfield, to deflate any momentum the Hawks may have built. Pine-Richland’s signal-caller found Ben Jochem for 25 yards and pay dirt with 2:07 left in the third to make it 35-14 and remove doubt from the issue.