WILMINGTON – Any state football tournament semifinal played Thanksgiving weekend amounts to a homecoming game, with out-of-town alums back for the holiday or those who are local more able or interested to attend the big event.
Sure enough, the seats at Tower Hill’s DeGroat Stadium were filled and the fences had spectators clinging to them Friday.
On an exquisite autumn afternoon, Howard High and Wilmington Friends School were kind enough to treat that gathering to a football game that wasn’t decided until the last minute on a fourth-down pass into the end zone.
That certainly beat the alternative – going inside, into a shopping mall, for instance.
With the bright sun sinking lower and shadows getting longer, several Howard defenders leaped along with Friends receiver Thomas Cover, who got an outstretched hand on Justin Beneck’s fourth-down pass from the 11. He wasn’t going to catch it while surrounded by so many Wildcats.
As the football landed on the end-zone turf, Howard only needed a last kneel-down to secure its 20-15 comeback win and reach just its second Division II state title game. The other came in 2002, when Howard lost to Delmar.
Friends was also bidding for just its second state final appearance, the Quakers’ coming even longer ago — in 1984, when they prevailed. One of the standouts from that team, running back Rob Buccini, was stationed alongside the fence Friday, wishing the contemporary Quakers might join he and his 1984 comrades.
“A lot of the players from my era, we come back to games every year,” Buccini said, “not just big games like this. I think it’s something that we really care about, that they win . . . One of the great things about living in a community like Wilmington is you have a connection with things like this.”
With Bob Tattersall having coached Friends since 1968, such bonds are extensive.
But Howard also relied on its ties to past teams to find some extra inspiration. It paid off in a big way Friday.
In a pregame locker-room talk, Keevis Thompson, a running back and linebacker on Howard’s 2008 and 2009 tournament teams, had expressed the regret he and his teammates still feel over a 26-20 first-round state tourney loss to these very Quakers.
Howard rolled into the state tournament 9-1 that year, its only loss 31-26 to Division I powerhouse Salesianum. The Wildcats then grabbed a 20-0 lead against Friends, but never scored again.
“It was the worst second-half meltdown you’ve ever seen,” said Thompson, now a screenwriter in Atlanta who was back in town for Thanksgiving. “I told them that in 10 or 20 years you want to be able to look at your brothers, also known as your teammates, when you see them out and say ‘Remember when we were playing football?’ and so on and so forth, and you can talk about having a win under your belt.
“We talk about what we did wrong in that Friends game, what we could have done, what we should have done. You don’t want that.’’
The present-day Wildcats appeared to be destined for the same fate. Friends marched down the field to score on its first possession. When Howard didn’t field the subsequent kickoff, the Quakers had another possession and a quick chance to pad their lead. They didn’t, as Howard’s defense got a crucial fourth-down stop at the Wildcats 14.
When Friends took a 15-6 lead early in the fourth period, the situation appeared bleak again for Howard. But the valiant Quakers’ defense had gotten worn down while Howard rushed for 246 yards, including Gerald Wiggins’ 177, and Howard drove for two touchdowns.
Friends, taking over with 2:04 on the clock, still had the spunk, schemes and skill to put itself in position for one more shot. Jonathan Gardner’s leaping third-down catch while getting drilled by two defenders was particularly clutch and gutsy. But the Quakers couldn’t quite pull off a comeback of their own.
Howard quarterback Earnest Austin said the message from that 2009 team was “don’t give up.”
Nobody on either team could be accused of doing that on a fine football Friday at Tower Hill.
Kevin Tresolini is a News Journal sports reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.