By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—All season long the thought was the same: Get to Hershey and win the state championship. All season long there were obstacles, some placed there on purpose, and others were there inadvertently.
All year long, St. Joseph’s Prep stayed the course. There were pratfalls, like the 42-0 spanking the Hawks took their second game against national power Don Bosco Prep, and the 27-14 stumble against a good Archbishop Ryan team (which beat two state champions and didn’t make the Catholic League playoffs). But in the end, the goal everyone envisioned came to fruition—and then some.
No one thought The Prep would be able to beat state juggernaut—and undefeated—Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the PIAA Class AAAA (large school) state championship. No one, that is, with the exception of the Hawks and their coaching staff. Then The Prep went out and devoured the Vikings, 35-10.
To get there, Prep quite easily stopped Parkland, another team it was also not supposed to beat, 21-10. Then the Hawks ripped through a very good Neshaminy team, 37-21, in the state semifinals. The Hawks finished 12-3—capturing the first state title in school history, and in doing so, they are the 2013 Team of the Year.
Archbishop Wood and Imhotep Charter had amazing seasons. Wood won the Class AAA state title for the second time in three years, becoming the first District 12 team in history to win multiple state championships, and Imhotep became the first Philadelphia Public League team to reach the state championship.
But the grand design that Hawks’ coach Gabe Infante put into motion four years ago couldn’t have had a better finish than this year. Infante challenged them. He made sure nothing came easy. And when he ran out of tests, he conjured up some more, always working, cajoling to get the utmost from his young team.
Each time, they responded. Each time, they were able to navigate over the rocky terrain their coach placed in front of them.
It got the Hawks their first state championship.
“This was a special team; it was special in how we all came together as a group and we developed leaders,” said Hawks’ unflappable senior quarterback Chris Martin, who wound up becoming a force this year. “We had young guys across the board that stepped into key roles and it was how everyone bought into the process coach Infante always talks about.
“Coach always says those games in the beginning of the year are a gift to us because we learn. We saw what the young guys could do against Dallas Jesuit and we saw how to deal with adversity in losing to Don Bosco Prep. The Bosco loss helped us grow and helped the leaders on the team begin to emerge. That was a tough loss, but without learning from that, I don’t think that we would be here as state champions.”
The season was marked by the emergence of freshman tailback D’Andre Swift, who scored a touchdown in the state championship, and junior Jon Daniel Runyan, who blossomed into a beast, playing both ways in the state title game with three tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
The Michigan-bound junior is going to have an interesting dilemma on his hands, as to whether he’ll play offensive tackle for the Wolverines, like his father, former Eagle All-Pro Jon Runyan, or defensive line.
Add the play of senior linebacker Ryan McNulty, junior defensive end Jake Strain, junior defensive back Tom Johnson and sophomore defensive back Shawn Harris and the Hawks were suffocating in the title game.
What’s more is expect Prep, a program it has to be noted that was long dormant before Gil Brooks resurrected it and set it on its path early this decade, to be back as the state’s preseason No. 1 again in 2014. The Hawks have arguably the best player in the state returning in junior defensive back John Reid, along with Runyan, Strain, Swift, Harris, Johnson and talented junior tailback Olamide Zaccheaus all returning.
Losing Martin will be a gaping void to fill, as will McNulty’s departure, but it was a young group that took a major step into a realm it appears St. Joe’s Prep will be maintaining for a while.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.