The Martin Luther King High Cougars football team formed a circle to get some stretching in before the most important second half of their season started Friday night.
With a hard-fought 6-0 lead over the Washington High Eagles, Cougars head coach Ed Dunn had a simple message for his players: “Control the game, control your destiny.”
A win meant the Cougars would advance to the PIAA playoffs for the second consecutive season. A loss would leave the uncertainty of possibly being eliminated from a Public League title-defense shot.
So what did the Cougars do during the next 24 game minutes? Controlled the game to the tune of a 28-14 victory in a matchup featuring a modicum of bad blood.
This game had been circled on MLK’s calendars for months since defensive lineman Dawayne Young’s transfer from Washington to King pitted two programs against one another in a battle over the player’s eligibility.
Young would ultimately be cleared to play for MLK, and his teammates rallied around him as the game started.
The first half would be a defensive struggle.
Each team would stop the other on fourth-down conversions in a scoreless first quarter that saw Cougars slotback Dominique McNeal drop a sure-touchdown pass.
Early in the second quarter, an 80-yard fumble-recovery return for a touchdown by Eagles defensive back Bruce Smalley was negated by a penalty call.
Less than a minute later, Cougars wide receiver/linebacker Jayni Harris intercepted Eagles quarterback Damir Mitchell and returned it 30 yards for the lone points of the first half.
A 36-point second half
After a halftime ceremony in which seniors on the Cougars roster presented their families with flowers, the home side roared back on the field with a level of intensity not seen from their foes.
Less than a minute and a half into the third quarter, Cougars quarterback Nasir Boykin hit Harris for a 67-yard touchdown pass. (Boykin, a sophomore, would set a school record for passing yards in a season with 1,837, besting Joe Walker’s 2013 record by 139 yards.)
Washington immediately responded with an efficient drive that ended with a 7-yard Qadir Cobbs rushing touchdown.
With the Cougars leading 12-7, the Eagles defense forced an MLK punt.
Though Cougars linebacker Maurice McCray prevented a sure touchdown by grasping a foe’s jersey and making a tackle, a long Cobbs run would put the Eagles in position to score as the fourth quarter got underway.
Washington took a 14-12 lead on a four-yard touchdown run from Shawn Henderson. Those would be the Eagles last points of the game.
Dominique McNeal would make up for his earlier drop with a 48-yard touchdown reception.
A swarming Cougars defense, with Young getting into the mix on numerous occasions, would keep the Eagles off balance for much of the fourth quarter.
Boykin then ran for a 3-yard touchdown that represented the final points of the game.
“You finally grew into the team that you’re supposed to be,” Dunn told his players during a postgame debriefing. “You came out here and played like a family.”
After being called into the middle of a huddle to lead the postgame cheer, Young was beaming.
“It feels good,” he said. “It feels great.”
Alluding to the preseason controversy, Dunn told his Temple University-bound lineman, “Full circle, baby. Full circle.”
As his team boarded buses for the jubilant ride back from Benjamin L. Johnston Memorial Stadium to their Stenton Avenue school, Dunn was asked whether the Cougars just played their best game of a 4-5 season.
“Hell yeah,” he told NewsWorks. “They sure waited for when our backs were against the wall to finally show that we are who we always believed we are. Our backs were against the wall, and we came out swinging. It might be eight weeks late, but late is better than never.”
With the win over Washington, the Cougars finished the season second in the PIAA’s AAAA Independence division standings.
In the first round of the playoffs, they’ll face the Frankford Pioneers at the Germantown Supersite on Halloween night. The game kicks off at 6 p.m. Friday.
The teams did not face each other during the regular season, but do have one common opponent.
Northeast High defeated Frankford 35-18 on Oct. 18. Two weeks earlier, the Cougars beat Northeast 50-49 in overtime.