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PIAA Football: Imhotep was of another level, but Strath Haven ‘kept pounding’

Strath Haven's Anthony Crawford, center, hits Imhotep quarterback Mikal Davis Jr. as he releases a pass in the third quarter of the PIAA Class 5A semifinals Friday evening. (PETE BANNAN - DAILY TIMES)

RIDLEY TWP. — The nervous laugh that Anthony Crawford stifled was equal parts exhaustion and resignation.

Yes, the Strath Haven junior running back agrees, Imhotep Charter does have some big guys up front. About the biggest the Panthers have seen this season. About the biggest you’d want to encounter on a high school field, particularly for a veer offense that prizes faint slivers of space between the tackles behind an undersized offensive line that has punched spectacularly above its weight all season.

Friday was different, as Crawford recognized in the moment and as hindsight will surely embellish. Yet Crawford walked off the field at Ridley High School, beneath a scoreboard that read 36-0 in Imhotep Charter’s favor in the PIAA Class 5A football semifinal, with pride in the fight Haven had put up.

“It’s not easy,” said Crawford, who bruised his way for 58 yards, none of them easy. “You’ve just got to keep pounding. Our linemen aren’t the biggest, but they kept grinding every time. Even when the line is banged up, they kept grinding, doing it for the team.”

Regardless of what the PIAA’s organizational chart may say, Imhotep (12-1) is in a different class than Haven, returning to Hershey for a state final for the sixth time since 2013. It has a boatload of players that major programs are fighting over – Texas A&M offered two just this week. Many will play on national television on Saturdays. Some could eventually play on Sundays.

Yet the District 1 champion Panthers battled commensurate with that title. Look no further than a team that went for it on fourth down on eight occasions Friday, in a game where punting was of no use. On five instances, the Panthers were successful, including three times in the first half.

It may not have gotten them on the scoreboard, but from a psychological perspective, it kept them in the game.

“Coach (Kevin) Clancy has been here before,” Crawford said. “We know we have to get that momentum and we’re prepared. We have complete trust in everyone.”

The number of fourth down tries owed to the lack of success on the first three downs. Haven had two plays over 10 yards the entire night. They rushed 49 times for 141 yards, every one of them gained at a steep cost. They had nine first downs, five on the final series as Imhotep subbed liberally. All nine times they moved the chains, it was on either third or fourth down.

Imhotep’s defense is not just talented and disciplined but perfectly suited to containing Haven’s run game. It has speed to prevent you from getting the edge. The chances of catching the secondary by surprise is reduced by the abundance of Division I talent.

Hence, Sam Milligan’s 0-for-7 night.

Yet it’s harder still in the trenches. The ends are set by Talik Birton, a vocal leader, and Enai White (official visits – Florida, Ohio State, Georgia, Alabama). They funneled most of the action toward a pair of stellar sophomore defensive tackles in David Johnson and Jahsear Whittington, who had a field day.

“I just had to tell myself that this wasn’t one of those games where I was going to make a lot of plays; I just had to do my job and let the play come to me,” Whittington said. “If I try too hard to make the play, it would’ve been me getting too far up field, me getting washed and them breaking a big play. I knew I had to stay disciplined with this preparation for this offense during the week, and I did a good job of staying patient and taking on blocks and shedding and getting off them.”

Strath Haven ended up doing a lot of good things. The Panthers didn’t turn the ball over, mostly bottled up Imhotep’s big-play potential and didn’t commit a penalty. They even forced an Imhotep punt. Considering some of the hurtings that Imhotep has inflicted on teams, a 20-0 deficit at halftime wasn’t bad, even if Haven’s offense showed little sign of being able to recoup that deficit.

Imhotep’s dominance, though, is unrelenting. Even after backup quarterback Sybree Williams-Rockeymore scored to make it 36-0 and trigger the running clock, Imhotep wouldn’t give that final inch. Strath Haven strung together five first downs on an 18-play, 68-yard drive that covered the final 9:31 of the game. The Panthers needed a 69th yard, though, with Chase Barlow (19 carries, 66 yards) stuffed at the 1 by Giovonni Graham with a chance to put points on the board at time expired.

That last play encapsulated so much. It didn’t diminish the fight from Strath Haven, but it reinforced Imhotep’s dominance. While it’s the final word on Strath Haven’s special season, it won’t be the defining one in a narrative written by the Panthers over so many successful weeks. That’s what will endure in the memory from this group.

“I think we made everyone proud this year,” senior lineman Ben Farabaugh said through tears. “We tried our best and we were able to accomplish a lot. We were just disappointed we weren’t able to finish it out and end the season on a super-high note. I hope we made everyone proud. I’m proud of everyone on the team.”

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