HERSHEY >> Fending off a considerable challenge from underdog Harrisburg, St. Joseph’s Prep won its fourth PIAA football title in six seasons Saturday night with a 40-20 conquest of the District 3 champion Cougars, at Hersheypark Stadium.
The Hawks finished off a perfect 13-0 run with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives, culminating in Marques Mason capping both off. Harrisburg had clawed to within 27-20 midway through the third quarter.
“It’s an amazing experience and feeling going through journey this with this group,” ninth-year Prep head coach Gabe Infante said, “because every group is different. Very proud of what our guys accomplished. The kids were resilient, and like most teams we’ve had here, they care about one another and care about one another. They did collectively what needs to be done to win football games.
“Love and trust. That’s what we believe in. We’re willing to sacrifice for one another and we believe in one another.”
Infante moved his Prep coaching record to 91-22, an .805 clip, with the win.
Prep has appeared in Hershey five of the last six seasons, with only 2015 missing from the resume. The Hawks rebounded from a 41-21 loss to Pine-Richland in this spot a year ago.
Saturday’s fourth title in five tries was a scrappy and sloppy affair and far from a lock for the Hawks, who had to deal with slippery Harrisburg quarterback Kane Everson. Everson was a senior-year transfer from Central Dauphin East last summer who led the Cougars (13-2) to a revenge win over District 1 power Coatesville in the 6A semifinal a week ago, three months after getting thumped by 31 at home by the Red Raiders in the season opener.
“That’s a very good football team,” Infante said of the Cougars. “Everson is a special player and their coaching staff did a tremendous job with those young men. They’ve got a lot to be proud of on the sideline. I’ve been on that side and know how it feels like. We just came up with one or more big plays and I can’t say enough about that program.”
But Everson hadn’t yet met up with Prep defensive back Anthony Rightley. Rightley introduced himself with three interceptions, including one in his own end zone at the pylon with 23 seconds left in the first half that snuffed out a promising Harrisburg drive.
Everson finished 17 of 27 for 201 yards and led the Cougars in rushing with 71 more on 16 totes.
“It’s a team game and we got the ‘W’ and that’s all that matters,” Rightley said, while declining to discuss his own exploits. “It was confidence that put this thing away. We started thinking about this game in the summer.”
Rightley also caught a touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Kyle McCord late in the first quarter, a 13-yard grab that capped a quick six-play, 55-yard drive that extended Prep’s lead to 20-7.
McCord showed poise beyond his years on the biggest stage in the state, completing 26 of 37 attempts for 284 yards and two scores. He overcome a pick-six on Prep’s second series, a 25-yard return for a score by Jai Burney that gave Harrisburg an early 7-0 lead. McCord had touchdown tosses of 13 yards to Rightley and Johnny Freeman while finding pay dirt a third time, with his legs.
“Our young quarterback is special and now we can start talking about where he ranks,” Infante said of McCord. “He’s led us to the promised land.”
The Hawks were not careful with the football but displayed the kind of irresistible firepower to overcome it. Prep fumbled the ball away three times, with all three recovered by Burney — a 5-foot-6, 210-pound fireplug who played Rightley’s role for the Cougars.
“I’m proud of our group,” Harrisburg coach Cal Everett said shortly after being denied a title for the second time in three seasons. “We were within seven in the fourth quarter against the No. 8-ranked team in country. What more can you ask. … Jai’s a monster with his heart. Heckuva player. His heart is 6-5 and he’s only 5-6.”
Prep responded to Burney’s opening strike with seven-play, 53-yard drive culminating in McCord hitting Freeman for the tying score. The Hawks took the lead on Kolbe Burrell’s 59-yard scamper through Harrisburg’s defense with 4:10 left in the opening frame, then moved it out to 20-7 on their next series, with McCord tossing to Rightley for six. The conversation failed.
Burrell rushed for 147 yards on 17 carries and that score, but fumbled twice.
Harrisburg put together its best drive of the night as a response: A 15-play, 71-yard march capped by Jahmir Plant’s 1-yard run. Plant, Harrisburg’s best running back, was later nicked up and his effectiveness waned.
Prep came right back, however. McCord went in from a yard out, the capper to a nine-play, 59-yard campaign that pegged the halftime score at 27-14.
Everson pulled off his finest play of the evening on fourth-and-10 at the Prep 25 in the third quarter, a 25-yard deep curl and run to Donte Kent with 7:38 to play in the period to make it a 27-20 contest.
Prep piled up 509 yards of total offense, to Harrisburg’s 307.
PIAA 6A championship
at Hersheypark Stadium
St. Joe’s Prep 40, Harrisburg 20
H – 7 7 6 0 — 20
SJP – 20 7 0 13 — 40
H – Jai Burney 25 int return (John McNeil kick), 8:58
SJP – Johnny Freeman 13 pass from Kyle Mccord (anotnio Chada kick), 7:02
SJP – Kolbe Burrell 59 run (Chada kick), 4:10
SJP – Anthony Rightley 13 pass from McCord (kick blocked), :27
H – Jahmir Plant 1 run (McNeil kick), 8:11
SJP -McCord 1 run (Chada kick), 5:40
H – Donte Kent 25 pass from Kane Everson (pass failed), 7:38
SJP – Marques Mason 4 run (kick failed), 10:54
SJP – Mason 4 run (Chada kick), 2:31
SJP 27, H 15
SJP 39-225, H 37-106
SJP 26-37-284-1, H 17-27-201-3
SJP 509, H 307
SJP 3-3, H 1-1
SJP 8-74, H 10-60
SJP 1-24.0, H 4-33.6