Update: The game has been postponed from Saturday until 1 p.m. Sunday.
It wasn’t just pep-rally rhetoric: What happened inside the Imhotep Institute Charter High School gymnasium Thursday afternoon truly was a “historic occasion.”
Never before had a Philadelphia public school seen its football team qualify for the state-championship game, but that’s exactly what the young men sitting front and center in a jubilant standing-room-only gym will play for in Hershey on Saturday.
They are facing a team from South Fayette (on the outskirts of Pittsburgh) with which Head Coach Albie Crosby is familiar. In 2010, Crosby was an assistant coach for a West Catholic team which drubbed the Lions in the title game.
That was a different time, and these are different teams. Breaking out South Fayette game film, he spoke of deep respect, and worried how predicted snowfall might affect his team, which hasn’t been able to practice outdoors this week since their East Germantown practice field is still iced over.
But the pep rally was not about breaking down tape; it was about building up a support system for a football team that, should it win, would make Imhotep the first school in state history to win both basketball and football state titles in the same calendar year.
Crosby said his game plan for Sunday is simple: just win. He doesn’t care how his team scores or keeps the Lions out of the end zone.
“ Ultimately, you want to win by the way we play – fast tempo, aggressive defense, special teams being able to score from anywhere,” said Crosby.
Rooting them on
On Thursday, each player was announced as they entered the Imhotep gym with lines of cheerleaders on either side of them. Television-news cameras were on hand.
There was singing, dancing, beat-boxing and drumming. There was clapping, yelling, screaming and somersaulting. And, there was remembering.
Hearkening back to 2004, when the seeds of a football program were first planted, teacher and JV coach Alfonse Bowman spoke about seasons in which the team didn’t win a single game, let alone qualify for the playoffs.
“Today is a testament to how far we’ve come,” said Bowman. “We’ve had kids who’ve passed away. We have kids at 80 [colleges or universities]. I will be a Panther for the rest of my life.”
Martha Christine “Mama Chris” Wiggins, the school’s CEO and founder, spoke of her pride in the team, its coaches and the student body as a whole. She thought back to when people wrongfully told her she couldn’t go to college or start a charter high school, both of which she did.
“I believe in you,” Wiggins said. “You’re going to be fast. You’re going to be great. Go to Hershey and bring back that trophy. I want Hershey to know that Philly’s there on Saturday!”
She said a win on Sunday would also be “a star in the hat of public education.”
Prior to the pep rally, senior center Gordon Thomas said his team, more than anything, will need to be mentally tough to earn a ring.
“ You just can’t go into it like, ‘I can’t make any mistakes. I just have to be perfect. [We need to] just be comfortable. Trust yourself,” said Gordon.
For senior nose guard Tyrone Barge, discipline will also be important.
“ We got to play as a team. We can’t be in each other’s ear, we can’t be putting each other down, we have to lift each other up,” said Barge. “ If a big play happens, a big play happens. We’re going to tell them, ‘ just forget about that play. Let’s keep going so we can meet our goal.’”
Wiggins later told NewsWorks that Imhotep Philly almost wasn’t going to be there on Saturday.
Needing more than $6,000 to transport the team to Hershey and lodge them overnight the night before the game, and an additional $5,500 for fan buses, Wiggins said she had to turn to local businesses and elected officials for donations.
They raised enough money to cover the team’s expenses this week, but they’re still seeking donations to help cover the fan buses. Also sought on Thursday were people to sit on those buses leaving Saturday morning.
“The best way we can support our team,” said athletic director and head basketball coach Andre Noble, “is getting on buses and going to Hershey on Sunday Tickets are $4. Get here at 8:30. We’re leaving at 8:45 a.m.”