MLK Cougars unexpected playoff run ends in humbling defeat, brighter outlook
Halftime was coming to a close in the Martin Luther King Cougars locker room on Saturday afternoon at Charles E. Martin Memorial Stadium.
Star lineman Dontae Angus sat on the ground of an institutionally hued room featuring few amenities beyond a caged-off area, a couple of tables, a white board and a bathroom.
He looked down at the floor, presumably trying to make sense of the first half against the Archbishop Wood Vikings in the PIAA AAA District 12 Championship game, held at the stadium behind Northeast High School.
Meanwhile, quarterback Joseph Walker stood outside with assistant coaches who urged him to "prop up" teammates, even if things continued looking dismal, even if he had just been sacked — again.
This was an important message. The expressions of frustration on players' faces before Head Coach Ed Dunn declared, "We're not done; keep fighting; we're in this together," were telling as the long walk toward the locker room commenced a few minutes earlier.
"Win, lose or draw, they're going to talk about you," Assistant Coach Kevin Norris told the team in that room. "And right now, it's all bad, it's 'King is who we thought they were.'
"I don't care what the score is: Win every time that ball is snapped."
Back out on the field
Soon, the players lined up at the door to go back onto the field where they won the school's first-ever Public League title one week earlier.
With a simple, "Let's go, c'mon," from Coach Dunn, they walked down a hill — their cleats rhythmically hitting the concrete walkway — toward a field with a scoreboard that read 52-0.
"Public League Champions! Public League Champions!" their fans yelled when they reached the sideline. "Let's go, champs! Let's go, champs!"
Though the Vikings thoroughly dominated them in the first half — the Cougars were unable to sustain a drive or stop their foes from making repeat end-zone visits — they would not concede another point.
With a quick second-half clock, a foe that took its collective foot off the gas and seemingly buoyed by positivity in the face of decimation, Walker hit receiver Delane Hart with a 40-yard bomb.
That led to a 13-yard Walker touchdown scramble, two-point conversion and fan celebrations with two minutes remaining in the game.
With that, the unexpected playoff run of a Cougars program that won just two games in the past two seasons — both by forfeit, no less (which is what Norris meant in the locker room) — came to a close with a 52-8 loss.
"We came as far as we could," Walker said, holding his helmet and shoulder pads before boarding the bus back to West Oak Lane. "I could never be disappointed in teammates who never quit."
How the lead grew to 52
The Vikings set themselves apart from the upstart Cougars early in the game. On their first drive, junior running back Jarrett McClenton rushed for a 40-yard touchdown in the first minute and a half.
An MLK fumbled kickoff resulted in a 14-0 deficit thanks to a 29-yard Josh Messina score within three minutes of the opening whistle.
The Cougars offense failed to sustain drives and their special teams gave up long punt returns setting up a Vikings field goal and touchdown in the second quarter's opening seconds. The Vikings kept coming and the Cougars fell farther and farther behind.
"Lift your heads up. This game isn't over yet," screamed one MLK fan just before a flubbed Walker punt set up a Joe Dutkiewicz's second touchdown of the last two minutes of the half.
With that score, it was 52-0.
What it all means
On the sidelines, as he was each game, MLK Principal William Wade told NewsWorks that he was proud of what the team accomplished, both in terms of defying the Cougars' non-illustrious gridiron history and people worrying about how the MLK/Germantown High School merger would go.
He said this team set a process in motion that he expects to continue in years to come. When high-school players see what this team accomplished this season, they'll want to be a part of it in future years, he said.
Norris, who rallied the team at halftime, said that he was "far from disappointed" in the players. He agreed with Wade, taking it a step farther in noting that Wood was an example of what the Cougars are building towards: A solid football program.
"We're getting there. I know we had a tough one today, but we're also looking seven, eight years down the line," he said. "We need to get used to winning. Our players discovered it during the season. We've got to get that feeling in April and May" like players from established programs like Wood do.
Dunn told his team after the game that "I know this hurts," but that it was inspiring to watch them grow together as a team in the face of adversity.
He also noted that "we're not done yet," since there's still the matter of the Thanksgiving game against East Germantown's Imhotep Panthers, who won the AA championship on Friday night.
"We're family, through thick and thin," he told players, huddling them up for a group cheer in the end zone as the Vikings celebrated their victory at the other end of the field.
Speaking with NewsWorks while trying to get his players onto the school buses waiting behind the stadium, Dunn echoed Norris' sentiment.
"We have the opportunity, now, to start building a program. Nobody even thought [players from MLK and GHS] would get along," he said.
"Yeah, we took our lumps today, but in the second half, these kids were still playing, still fighting," continued Dunn, who came over from GHS, where he served as an assistant coach before last year's school closing. "I'm not dwelling on what we didn't do. I saw fight and determination. We'll have the opportunity to prove ourselves again. We're not a flash in the pan. [Opponents] will be dealing with us for a long time."