St. Frances Academy defeats Gilman, 44-7, in the MIAA A Conference football championship. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
Gilman managed to stall the St. Frances football juggernaut for a little while in Sunday’s Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship. In the second half, however, there was no stopping the No. 1 Panthers.
With their size, strength and depth, the Panthers (12-0) have simply worn down opponents and after trailing for the first time this season after the first quarter, they blitzed the No. 8 Greyhounds with five touchdowns in less than nine minutes to finished off a 44-7 victory at Johns Hopkins Homewood Field for their second straight A Conference title.
“They gave us everything they have and we knew that was coming,” said Henry Russell, co-coach of the Panthers with Biff Poggi. “We just kept on fighting. You’ve got to play us for 48 minutes. Basically, we scored 35 in a quarter and one more play. The third quarter was just huge. Our kids, when they get momentum, they seize it.”
Coming out of the break, the Panthers had a 9-7 lead, but they started their next four drives inside the Gilman 35-yard line thanks to short punts and one 45-yard punt return from Kwincy Hall. St. Frances needed just five plays or less to score each time.
Junior running back Joachim Bangda ran for three of his four touchdowns in the spurt and junior quarterback Jalon Jones ran for one. After they scored back-to-back to boost the lead to 23-7, linebacker Osman Savage picked off Gilman quarterback Purnell Hill and returned the ball 29 yards for a touchdown.
Bangda, who ran 16 times for 148 yards, added two more rushing touchdowns for the 44-7 final, the last one, about 15 seconds into the fourth quarter, kicked in the running clock for a lead of 35 or more points.
“At halftime we went to the locker room [(and] we talked to the coaches,” Bangda said, “and we told ourselves that we can’t let up and we can’t let them think they were in the game with us and we came back.”
The game ended much differently from the way it started.
The Greyhounds (5-7), who lost the regular-season meeting 50-0, went to their bag of tricks right away. With a tailwind, Gilman coach Tim Holley figured they could take the Panthers by surprise with an onside kick and it worked.
Kevonte Beard recovered at the St. Frances 45-yard line and the Greyhounds orchestrated a nine-play drive capped by Brandon Madison’s 6-yard flip-pass to Bryce Bush in the end zone. Douglas Godine’s extra point made it 7-0 with 8:16 left in the first quarter.
“We were a little shaken up, but I don’t think that it affected us at all. We kept focus for the game and completed the task at hand,” Panthers wide receiver Randy Fields said.
The Greyhounds had another great opportunity after St. Frances fumbled on its first drive and Alex Slodzinksi recovered for Gilman, but they couldn’t move the ball. On the Panthers’ next drive, Bandga scored his first touchdown, but the wind caught kicker Jake Larson’s extra-point attempt and the Greyhounds held the lead going into the second quarter.
Larson, a junior whose kicks and punts pinned Gilman deep in their own territory every time, gave St. Frances the lead for good with a 34-yard field goal for a 9-7 edge with 3:25 left in the half.
Gilman coach Tim Holley said his team was just “up against a superior force.”
“We played a great first half,” he said, “and then in the second half, they kind of got the momentum going. … Against other teams in our conference if you make a mistake and it costs you a touchdown, it costs you a touchdown. Against them if you make a mistake, it costs you three touchdowns, because it seems like they score in bunches and they really get the momentum going and they’re hard to stop.”
The Greyhounds finished the regular season with an upset of McDonogh to force their way into a five-way tied for second place. They had scored more points in their losses, thanks mostly to a 76-58 loss to Archbishop Spalding, than any other team, so on that final tiebreaker, they earned the second seed behind the Panthers.
Holley, the Gilman athletic director who stepped in to steady the program the past two years, said he was proud of where the program has come since Poggi and most of his coaching staff left Gilman for St. Frances and many of the top players also departed after the 2015 season.
“I’m so proud of our guys and the journey we’ve been on together for two years really — not just this year,” he said. “I don’t think anybody in their right minds two years ago or even at the beginning of this year, would have thought we would have been here today.”
Taking over a program that was 0-6 in the A Conference two years ago, Poggi, Russell and their staff have built the Panthers into a national power in just two years. Ranked No. 13 in USA Today’s Super 25, they’ve outscored their opposition this fall by an average of 36 points.
Poggi has guided teams to all three of the MIAA championship that involved playoffs as Gilman won the previous two in 2011 and 2012.
The Panthers, ranked No. 1 in Maryland, will play in the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series on Dec. 23 at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. Russell said their opponent has yet to be determined. The game against IMG Academy, postponed in September because of Hurricane Irma, will not be made up.