MLK Cougars win school’s first Public League football championship

The Martin Luther King High School Cougars football team won the Philadelphia Public League Class AAA championship on Saturday with a 32-7 victory over a Mastery North team to which it lost earlier in the season.

Presenting the championship plaque to Coach Ed Dunn, Principal William Wade, the team and its supporters on the Northeast High School field, PL Executive Director Robert Coleman noted the accomplishment’s significance.

“You showed how two schools can come together, two neighborhoods can come together, families can come together and win,” he said.

What they represent

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Coleman was referring to the fact that the season started with uncertainty about how an influx of students from the closed Germantown High School would assimilate at MLK’s West Oak Lane school.

That dynamic led to a New York Times Sunday feature which inspired a documentary crew which has shadowed the team throughout the year in anticipation of a Tribeca Film Festival entry.

That NYT feature included the lines, “King hoped to win its first Public League football title this season. That would be a vast improvement for a school that has rarely won in recent years and last season gained its only victory by forfeit.”

By all accounts, including that of Principal Wade who watched the team from the sidelines throughout the season, it has served its bridge-between-two-schools role well, even if people aligned with both think concerns about generational neighborhood rivalries were overhyped.

The season

With much attention drawn to their performance, the Cougars started the season with a pair of losses (one of which was avenged on Saturday).

They’ve won 10 games since under the leadership of Dunn, who also came over from GHS where he served as an assistant coach.

(Stories and photo galleries from each of MLK’s games are linked at the bottom of this post in the related-articles section).

For his part, Dunn said he might have underestimated the depth of the responsibility.

“Every day, something would come up that we’d have to address; something small, something big or in between. Things you don’t see coming,” he said, still drying off from the celebratory Gatorade-cooler shower.

“But it’s a journey, and the struggle, the challenges, are what makes what we accomplished today so rewarding,” Dunn continued. “Beyond football, these young men are learning life lessons that they can take with them forever.”

The championship game

On Saturday, Mastery stormed out to a 7-0 lead thanks to an 80-yard touchdown pass on its opening drive. Those would be their only points of the afternoon at Charles Martin Memorial Stadium.

It would not phase the Cougars. After a fumbled snap, standout quarterback Joseph Walker hit highly regarded wide receiver Delane Hart with a 50-yard pass. Walker then ran 40 yards for a touchdown.

After forcing a Mastery Pumas punt, the Cougars drove upfield. A reception by tight end Brendan Jackson left them at Mastery’s one-yard line; running back Ishmael Dargan ran it in for a touchdown.

After another defensive stop, King converted a fourth down with a pass to Mark McCray. Walker then ran for a touchdown on a quarterback keeper. The score was 20-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Though Mastery completed a 38-yard pass on its next drive, the ensuing punt led to Walker’s 46-yard touchdown. A touchdown by Dargan would then close out the scoring with 34 seconds remaining before halftime.

The second half saw long passes, turnovers, penalties and a clock slowly running out on any chance of a comeback for Mastery.

The post-game celebration

“He believed in you guys,” Wade told the team of Dunn as they gathered after an on-field celebration that included hooting, hollering, hugging, cheerleader salutations and even a backflip.

Donning a shirt with a Superman logo near bleachers where someone held a “Broadway Joe” sign, Walker spoke about transferring from Mastbaum and his first realization that the Cougars had a chance to do great things this season.

“This feels great. It shows that everyonce can come together,” he said of both Saturday’s game and the season’s successes to-date.

When did Walker think this team could reach its lofty goals? “As soon as I came over and saw the talent here, and saw that everybody was on the same page, not just saying it, but putting in the time and energy to be a complete team.”

What’s next?

The Cougars will head back to Northeast High’s stadium on Saturday for the District 12 Class AAA Final versus Archbishop Wood (9-2).

Wood, ranked seventh in the Inquirer‘s Top 25, is coming off a 42-6 victory over Monsignor Bonner in the Catholic League playoffs, a Saturday night contest which MLK’s coaches attended after beating the Pumas.

Kickoff in the city-title game is scheduled for 1 p.m. The winner moves one step closer to the state championship game the weekend of Dec. 13 in Hershey.

Additional reporting by Brad Larrison for NewsWorks.

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