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By Joseph Santoliquito

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It unraveled early and snowballed from there, becoming an unstoppable cavalcade of errors. Every possible disaster scenario the Imhotep Charter coaching staff and team could conceive imploded right there before them last December in the PIAA Class AA state championship game.

A team many thought would win handily (including the name on the top of this story) wound up being handled. South Fayette turned into a green and white steamroller, trampling the Panthers 41-0 in the largest margin of victory for a Class AA state championship.

Eight months later, Imhotep still carries the sting of that loss. Star players watch replays of the game constantly, some every day, while a quality coaching staff, led by head coach Albie Crosby, questioned themselves.

It’s stirred everyone associated with the Imhotep program to new heights this year. They’re looking to erase the stigma of that state title loss, and the echoes that were heard afterward, like some ignorance calling the Panthers “a typical Pub team,” and the idea that a “team like that” couldn’t handle the pressure.

What has been lost is how dominant the Panthers have been under Crosby. In his first two years, Imhotep won two-straight Class AA District 12 titles (city championship) while amassing a 27-4 overall record.

It seemed the state title loss marred everything good that the Panthers accomplished. It was wiped clean—just like that. They made history in becoming the first Philadelphia Public League team to reach the state championship. They finished 13-3, scoring 40 or more points in 11 of 16 games.

What’s more is Imhotep returns a loaded team with many of last year’s holdovers, beginning with sophomore offensive guard Johncarlo Valentin, junior tight end Naseir Upshur, one of the nation’s best, senior quarterback Andre Dreuitt-Parks is a three-year starter, tailbacks Tyliek Raynor and Mike Waters, who return after combing to rush for over 1,600 yards, and wide receiver D.J. Moore, a Maryland commit who is arguably the best in the state.

“Our slogan this year is ‘We’re still not done,’” Crosby said. “This could be my best team ever this year. We have guys back who know the system; our running backs are phenomenal; we have great size and experience on the offensive line, and a defense that can get to the quarterback.

“You coach this game long enough, you’re going to win games and lose games and you have to be able to accept it. It happens. Is South Fayette 41 points better than us, I doubt it. I extremely doubt it. But that night, South Fayette was the better team. And I blame myself for that loss. I’m a head coach of a very good football team, and I get a lot of credit that isn’t deserved. If I’m willing to accept the credit, I have to be man enough to accept the blame. Ultimately, I could have done a lot of things [in the state championship] and I didn’t do it. I can live with that—and you grow from it. That 41-0 experience made me a better football coach.”

Crosby may not be fair to himself. Valentin shook his head and said no way was the state title loss on Crosby and the coaching staff last year. But last year’s experience may have forced a very talented team to form a very large chip on their shoulders.

“I feel the coaches have a bigger chip on their shoulders than the players do,” Valentin said. “They put their hearts into this and they feel that they let us down. The truth is, the players let them down. We were the ones playing the game. We were the ones jumping offsides and getting all of those penalties, not the coaches. We were staying up late the night before the game, thinking we were going to crush those guys. We were horrible that game—horrible. I watch a tape of that state championship game every day on my phone.

“We didn’t play Imhotep football. That’s what hurts the most. It was the state championship and we didn’t show up and play our best.”

This season, count on the Panthers playing deep into November and early-December. Imhotep moves from Class AA to Class AAA, and the Panthers will be state title contenders again. Defending Class AAA state champion Archbishop Wood is the one major stumbling block in Imhotep’s way to a return visit to Hershey. There’s a strong chance Wood and Imhotep will meet in the Eastern finals—which will be a game of the year candidate.

No team in the Public League will come close to Imhotep. There is a strong chance Wood will run through the Catholic League Class AAA Division.

“The sky is the limit for our team,” Crosby said. “This is a team that can make history. I look at what [Wood] coach [Steve] Devlin has done and it’s amazing. I respect what they do. We have to get to them and I think we will. But I’m comfortable with saying we’re not afraid of Archbishop Wood at all.”

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