In the frigid night air, they openly mourned the end of a hard-fought season.
Some players sobbed or squirmed with frustration. Others stood like teary-eyed sentinels as their head coach offered up a silver lining to help soothe the pain.
“It’s nights like these that are going to motivate you to go and get stronger and get better regardless of whether it’s football or in life,” said Ed Dunn, who leads Martin Luther King High School’s football team.
“The process of you continuing to climb every day,” he said. “Staying humble. Staying hungry.”
Eight points short
The emotional huddle came minutes after King lost 22-14 to Simon Gratz High School in the PIAAA 4A public-league semifinals.
The team falling was playing for a second-straight city championship.
The game, played at Gratz’s Marcus Foster Memorial Stadium, was never out of reach for the Cougars.
They held a 6-0 halftime lead thanks to a 50-yard interception return from linebacker Jayni Harris and an impressive goal-line stand on defense.
With 7:37 left in the third, Gratz’s Shawn Williams punched in his first of three rushing touchdowns. A two-point conversion gave the Bulldogs a two-point lead.
Roughly four minutes later, the margin was extended to 10.
Following a safety off an errant long snap halfway through the fourth, though, the Cougars pulled within eight.
The momentum didn’t last long.
With 1:43 left in the game, Williams sped past King’s defense en route to a touchdown that seemingly sealed the game.
Gratz, however, failed to convert the two-point conversion, giving King one last chance to tie things up and potentially head to overtime.
The Cougars reached the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line. A dropped pass on 4th down and 8 effectively ended the game.
The final score matched that of last season’s opening game between the two teams.
Expressions of defeat
The loss punched some players in the gut well before the final 29.2 seconds had ticked away.
Harris, for one, slumped over the railing, his back to the field. Dunn hugged players.
Afterwards, as his players waited for the bus back to West Oak Lane, the young coach silently paced the brightly lit field, perhaps in an effort to shake off some of the sting, the frustration of falling short in the school’s first season competing against PIAA 4A squads. (Last year’s public-league title was in the 3A class.)
“Losing isn’t a reason to put your head down,” said Dunn. “You have to learn from the ones you don’t win.”
Though the loss ended the Cougars playoff run, they still have one game left to play: The second-annual ‘Legacy Bowl‘ on Thanksgiving morning against the Imhotep Panthers.