PHILADELPHIA >> No one needed to remind Dylan Walker of the stakes.
“I mean, it was do or die,” the Pope John Paul II senior said of Friday night’s deciding two-point conversion. “That was the play that was going to win or lose the district championship.”
Walker led a host of Pope John Paul II defenders who stopped Neumann Goretti’s Tysheem Johnson just short of the goal line, preserving a one-point lead with 1:06 to play and allowing the Golden Panthers to claim the school’s first district title, upending previously undefeated Neumann Goretti 29-28 in the District 1/12 Class 3A championship in South Philadelphia.
It’s not only the school’s first district title, it’s the culmination of a journey that’s taken the Golden Panthers from the very bottom (one win over coach Rory Graver’s first two seasons in 2014-2015) to the very top as Class 3A champions of a combined District 1/12 subregional that included Neumann Goretti, who came into the game at 11-0 and champions of the Philadelphia Catholic League’s Blue Division.
For the PJP faithful, the final two minutes of Friday’s game probably felt as long as the journey to get to that point.
Trailing 22-21 with 1:41 to play and facing 4th and 10 from the Neumann Goretti 43, PJP senior quarterback Kamal Gray dropped back, knowing he could very possibly be about to throw his last high school pass. Gray, the PAC’s leader in passing yardage and touchdowns in 2019, was under siege from a relentless Neumann Goretti front seven all evening, limiting him to a 9-for-36 passing line. But on what would be his final pass of the evening, Gray found himself with time to find a wide-open Justin Kormos over the middle for a 43-yard score to put PJP back in front, 27-22.
“We kept trying to attack the middle of the field, because we knew it was open,” said Coach Graver. “We called our shake route there, and our offensive line did a great job of blocking.”
“I have to give that line credit,” Gray said. “Every single one of them worked hard all night, gave me time to make that throw. It was a total team effort.”
Kamal Gray to Justin Kormos 43-yard TD with 1:32 left. pic.twitter.com/E1aDFVGYlE
— Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue) November 9, 2019
Gray converted the two-point conversion pass to wide receiver Steve Skarbek, extending the Golden Panthers’ lead to 29-22. But Neumann Goretti responded quickly, starting their ensuing possession at midfield and getting a quick first down before sophomore QB Marqui Adams went deep, finding Malik Griffin for his second TD catch of the game and bringing the Saints back within a point.
The Saints had gone for two after each touchdown Friday night, so it wasn’t hard to figure out what was coming next.
It wasn’t hard to figure who was coming at the PJP defense either.
Johnson, Neumann Goretti’s superstar running back, had already rushed, passed, and returned a punt for a touchdown before Griffin’s long catch, and was a lock to see the ball on the game’s deciding play.
“I mean, he’s tremendous, and every time we saw them in that Wildcat look, Tysheem got the ball,” said Walker. “But really, it was just about making a play, any play in that moment.
“We promised one another as a team that we’d leave it all on the field, no matter what. Before that last play, that was all I heard. ‘Leave it all on the field.’”
Walker did just that on Friday, making up for lost time after an injury forced him to miss his junior season last year after transferring into PJP from Daniel Boone. Over the season, the Bowling Green commit has not only become a favorite target of Gray, he’s become the team’s punter and made countless contributions from his defensive end spot – none bigger than the stop on Friday’s decisive two-point conversion.
PJP stops conversion with 1:06 left. 29-28 Panthers pic.twitter.com/CbIUwxlEea
— Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue) November 9, 2019
Walker snagged two passes for 48 yards, plus a two-point conversion on Friday night, but that only scratches the surface of his play. With the Golden Panthers leading 7-6 late in the first quarter, Walker’s 64-yard punt late pinned the Saints inside their own 3-yard line. When Adams bobbled the following snap from center, it was Walker who pounced on the loose ball in the end zone to expand the lead to 13-6 after one quarter.
His two-point conversion grab followed Gray’s second short TD run of the half and sent the Golden Panthers into the break with a 21-14 lead that seemed to take some of the energy out of the Neumann Goretti faithful. But Tysheem Johnson would restore that energy late in the third quarter, twisting and turning through the PJP special teams for a 76-yard punt return TD to give the hosts a 22-21 lead.
The respective defenses were the stars of the second half until that fateful final 1:41, with Johnson’s special team tally standing as the only points of the half until that point. But none of it would have occurred without Walker’s catch-and-run traversing 30 yards with exactly two minutes to play on a 3rd-and-16 from PJP’s own 27.
After the two squads exchanged their long touchdown passes, the stage was set for Walker’s final heroic moment, stopping Johnson (who accounted for 205 of Neumann Goretti’s 283 offensive yards) at the goal line, keeping PJP in front by a single point, and, after surviving an onside kick attempt, securing the District title.
“I do my best to contribute wherever I can to help my team win,” Walker summarized. “When my name is called, I want to be there for these guys. Everything in my life has been leading up to this point, and everything from here on leads to the next big thing. Keep moving forward, keep getting better.”
The closeness of the Golden Panthers as a team was apparent, forged by a full week of hearing just how overmatched they were by Neumann Goretti, with their undefeated record and handful of high Division One recruits.
“We had people at school who didn’t even believe in us,” said Kormos. “And obviously no one outside of school believed in us either. All we had was each other. These guys, right here… and that’s all we needed.”
In the end, the two teams were remarkably even, the entire contest befitting of being decided at the goal line with a minute to play in a one-point game. But the Golden Panthers had waited long enough.
It’s been a steady ascent for the Pope John Paul II program over Graver’s half-dozen seasons at the helm — from a combined 1-21 record in 2014-2015 to consecutive winning campaigns and playoff berths in 2017-2018, and ultimately a PAC Frontier Division title and District championship this year.
The journey isn’t complete, as the 10-2 Golden Panthers will now take on District 11 champion Tamaqua at a time and location to be determined in next Friday’s first round of the PIAA 3A state tournament.
But those details can wait. Even Coach Graver, typically a proponent of always looking forward to the next game, told his team in their postgame huddle that they would ‘enjoy the heck out of this one!’
His players obliged. Kamal Gray, cold and sore after a full evening’s worth of hits from the Catholic League’s top defense, was uncharacteristically emotional after the biggest win in school history – arguably in any sport.
“It’s an historic moment for our school,” said Gray. “We he
ard (about Neumann Goretti’s team speed), but we have fast guys of our own. We might not have as big a name, but when we play as a unit, we win.
“I’m just so happy right now. Of course nobody thought we would win, but we have each other. We’re a group of about 50-55 guys who have each other’s backs. We believe in ourselves.”
District 1/12 Class 3A Championship Game
Pope John Paul II 29, Neumann Goretti 28
Pope John Paul II— 13 8 0 8 — 29
Neumann Goretti — 6 8 8 6 — 28
PJP – Gray 10 run (Snyder kick)
NG – T. Johnson 20 run (pass failed)
PJP – Walker recovered fumble in end zone (kick failed)
NG – Griffin 30 pass from T. Johnson (T. Johnson run)
PJP – Gray 1 run (Walker pass from Gray)
NG – T. Johnson 76 punt return (T. Johnson run)
PJP – Kormos 43 pass from Gray (Skarbek pass from Gray)
NG – Griffin 37 pass from Adams (run failed)
First Downs 15 11
Rushing Yards 72 150
Passing Yards 175 133
Total Yards 247 283
Passes C-A-I 9-37-0 7-16-0
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 4-25 7-41
Punts-Avg. 6-35.5 5-25.2
Pope John Paul II – Gray 14-12; 2 TD, McDonald 13-48, Gooden 3-6, DePetrillo 2-3, Little 1-6, Skarbek 1-(minus-1), Team 2-(minus-2).
Neumann Goretti – T. Johnson 21-163; TD, Griffin 5-4, Adams 3-(minus-17).
Pope John Paul II – Gray 9-36, 175 yards; TD, DiRico 0-1, 0 yards.
Neumann Goretti – Adams 5-14, 104 yards; TD, T. Johnson 2-2, 29 yards; TD.
Pope John Paul II – Kormos 3-88; TD, Walker 2-48, Skarbek 2-(minus-3), Mitala 1-24, McDonald 1-18.
Neumann Goretti – Griffin 4-70; 2 TD, Gabriel 2-50, T. Johnson 1-13.
Sacks: Pope John Paul II – Anderson 2.
Neumann Goretti – A. Johnson 2, Gentry, Gaddy.
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