As Nathan Schlessinger lined up for a 24-yard field goal against Imhotep Charter, his chest rose and fell a couple of times. With the roar of the Penn-Trafford faithful all but drown out in his head, he thought to himself, ‘I’m here for a reason, my coach trusts me for a reason, I can put this through.’
Schlessinger had already nailed two extra points in the game, including the game-tying extra point with less than a minute remaining in regulation, but his 24 yarder came in overtime against Pennsylvania powerhouse Imhotep in the PIAA Class-5A championship.
Penn-Trafford teammate Carter Green never doubted his kicker or his team. A theme that pervades throughout the Warriors’ team and community.
“It’s what we do every time,” Carter Green said. “That field goal is important, but Slush is the best kicker in the state, hands down. Maybe the best kicker in the nation, I don’t know, but I knew he was gonna bang it, and I knew our line was gonna hold up.”
Schlessinger’s kick soared through the uprights, striking the scoreboard a good 30 yards off the field, and Penn-Trafford took a 17-14 lead through the midway point of the period. Imhotep’s overtime almost ended in disaster, with a snap flying over Mikal Davis’s head, but the Panthers set up with a fourth-and-26 and needing a touchdown to win the game — and the state title.
Penn-Trafford’s Conlan Greene lined up on the edge for the fourth down play, busting through the Imhotep offensive line and barrelling down on Davis. Greene wrapped Davis up, dragging him to the turf, and the only thought in his head was making sure that Davis didn’t get away.
“I just did not want to let go,” Greene said. “I just wanted to grab him and take him down to the ground, end the game. Overtime, it’s something I’ve never done before, so it’s crazy.”
Davis hit the turf, and the mass of Penn-Trafford fans clad in green erupted as the reality set in. The Warriors knocked off Imhotep, 17-14, to win the first PIAA championship in school history. And without that defensive performance against a loaded Panthers’ squad, it wouldn’t have been possible.
“I think our defense won the championship, that’s what I think,” P-T head coach John Ruane said. “I think that old cliche held true tonight, defense wins championships. Without question, the defense was the reason we were in this game. And the defense was the reason we won the football game.”
But without a late, game-tying drive at the end of regulation, Penn-Trafford wouldn’t have won either. The Warriors were below 130 yards of total offense — mostly from Cade Yacamelli — entering the game-deciding drive that started with just a tick over four minutes left in the game, and with the ball at their 40, the task was set.
Penn-Trafford worked the ball down the field, helped by Yacamelli being interfered with in the end zone on fourth down, but a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line with just 30 seconds left.
The Warriors lined up in a wildcat set, with Greene lined up under center with Yacamelli behind him. Yacamelli motioned out wide, drawing the attention of the Imhotep defense, and Greene received the snap. Jack Jollie had lined up with his hand in the turf, but he slipped untouched through the defensive line and found a pocket of space in the end zone.
Greene took a few steps toward the offensive line and executed a perfect jump pass to Jollie in the back of the end zone. Greene was happy his name was called, but he knew he had to step up and handle that responsibility.
“That’s just something we rep all the time,” Ruane said. “We don’t motion Yacamelli that often on it, and we decided to do it tonight. Just because we thought he’d draw a lot of attention, he’s a great football player and he does draw a lot of attention. It worked.”
Ruane said that Penn-Trafford had been working on that play, the most important offensive play of the season, for the last 15 weeks. And when the lights were shining the brightest, Ruane called it. And Greene and Jollie did it.
“We just planned to do what we always do, do our job,” Yacamelli said. “Everybody counted us out, but we knew what we had to do, we knew what we could do. Everyone said we couldn’t, but hey, that’s been the name of the season. Everybody’s been saying we’re gonna lose, and guess what? We win.”
Yacamelli did what he does best all season, accounting for 133 yards of offense (75 percent of Penn-Trafford’s offense) and a touchdown in the game, but he was more than happy to be a decoy on the game-tying score or being a cheerleader in screaming praise for the defensive linemen and linebackers all game.
And even with the jump pass touchdown, the game-winning field goal, the all-around excellence of Yacamelli and the perfect storm of the puzzle pieces fitting together, without the Penn-Trafford community, it wouldn’t have been possible.
“We first came out and we looked at their crowd then we looked at ours,” Yacamelli said. “I mean, that just shows what this whole community is all about. I can’t even put into words how I feel right now. I’m gonna say this, God is great because he truly got us this win. I’ve been praying for that, and I truly believe that.”
Green can’t speak enough to how important the community, his teammates, the coaches and everyone means to him, but Greene found a way to speak to the significance of the P-T community.
“Coach says one heartbeat all the time,” Greene said. “Usually, you say that to your football team, but I think it’s the community that’s one heartbeat. Everybody came out to support, I mean the size of the crowd was crazy. I think that played a key role in the game.”
And while the community helped make it all possible, Ruane pointed to the kids themselves, the Penn-Trafford Warriors, that truly brought the first ever PIAA title home.
“I just can’t say enough about our kids, they have such heart, such character,” Ruane said. “Every time the game is on the line, they dig deep and make a play, and they did tonight.”
“I can’t even describe it,” Yacamelli said. “I’m coughing right now. I was over there crying, I’m jumping, I’m screaming. I’m going to enjoy this tonight with my guys. Probably won’t sleep.”
Yacamelli probably still hasn’t slept yet.