Through the first 11 games, the running game was more than sufficient.
But in the D1A State Championship, KP had to rely on the passing game – and Lee was right, the Warriors can throw the ball.
Using an impressive aerial attach and it’s typical hard nosed defense, King Philip defeated Reading, 21-18, at Gillette Stadium for the program’s first ever state championship.
“Reading has an awesome defense, we could not [run the ball],” Lee said. “There were a lot of dudes in there and they were big and strong and physical. We just knew they were not going to let us do what we wanted. We worked on throwing the ball more in practice. We’ve been saying we can throw it, we just don’t like to if we don’t have.
“That’s why this team is so special, because we’re a running team and we had to throw it today. We had to throw it to guys that aren’t your conventional wide receivers and they had to make plays on the biggest stage. That’s why they’re so, so special.”
King Philip’s running attack has given teams fits as season but the Rockets’ defense was stout throughout the first half, bottling up run after run by the Warriors. KP’s defense kept things close but after a scoreless first quarter, the Warriors had just nine yards after two offensive series.
Reading was able to move the ball on its second series of the game, even converting a fourth down a fourth down on the first play of the second quarter at the KP 19-yard line. The Rockets were forced to go for it again on fourth down from the 13 yard line but Reading quarterback Corey DiLoreto’s pass was dropped in the end zone.
A 45-yard gain by Gio Fernandez finally gave King Philip’s offense some life as they moved into Reading territory. But a penalty forced KP back and 10 yard gain on fourth down from Brendan Lydon (13/18, 256 yards, two touchdowns) to Fernandez came up a yard short.
One play into Reading’s third series, Nick DiNapoli took the toss to the right side and got around the edge and sprinted his way for a 79 yard touchdown. A failed two point rush gave Reading a 6-0 lead with 3:11 to go in the first half.
On the next series, King Philip began its commitment to the passing game. Facing 3rd and 20, Lydon hit senior Tyler Jenesky over the middle for a 24 yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, Lydon connected with David Morganelli for 14 yards and another first down. After another completion to Jenesky, Lydon connected with Ethan Dunne on a post route for a 14 yard touchdown. Freshman Cole Baker’s extra point (3/3 PAT) gave KP a 7-6 lead with 28 seconds left in the half.
“That was huge,” Lee said of the first half touchdown. “We were getting outplayed big time. Gio gave us a big spark. I thought field position was a real factor early on. We could have done play action but I don’t like to do it when we’re backed up that much. We got some room with that big run and able get those points.”
Reading fumbled the ensuing kickoff and KP recovered at the Rockets’ 30 yard line but the refs ruled the runner down and the team’s headed into the halftime break just a point apart.
King Philip’s defense forced a punt on the opening series of the second half and took advantage with its offense. On the first play, Lydon went play action and found a wide open Brett Mazur for a 62 yard completion. An eight yard pass from Lydon to John DeLuca (45 all purpose yards) made it 4th and 1 from the 2 yard line.
Lydon called his own number and bulled his way into the end zone and Baker’s second extra point put King Philip up 14-6 with 6:34 in the third quarter.
After KP’s defense forced another punt, the offense marched down the field again but Lydon was picked off in the end zone to end the threat. On the ensuing offensive series, Reading opened up its playbook, going with a double reverse with receiver Matt Panacopoulos connecting with Eric D’Agostino for a 50 yard touchdown. However, the two point pass sailed high as KP held a 14-12 advantage with 9:48 left in the game.
It certainly didn’t take King Philip long to respond those. After a one yard gain on first down, the Warriors went play action with Lydon once again finding an open Mazur, who fought off a defender and scampered in for a 69 yard touchdown. Baker’s third extra point put KP up 21-12.
“All season, we’ve averaged about 200 yards on the ground,” Mazur said. “Tonight was a changeup. It was open, it was there, we knew that, and we just took advantage of it. We got the flats open, got everything open and it worked for us.”
“It was confidence and [Brendan’s] really calm,” Lee said of his quarterback. “After he made the mistake, he comes back and puts the ball on the money down here, just unbelievable.
“He’s never lost. Every time he starts, he’s never lost as a quarterback I think that’s impressive. I know it was freshmen and JV before but still. I was yelling and he said coach relax, we’re going to win this.”
After getting the ball back by stopping Reading on downs, King Philip was faced with its own fourth down from the Reading 37-yard line. It looked as though Lydon connected with Mazur again, who clearly got one foot down in bounds, but the ref ruled it was out of bounds and KP turned it over on downs.
The missed call was costly as Reading connected for a 63 yard touchdown on its ensuing drive. DiLoreto hit DiNapoli, who slipped by a pair of defenders and raced the rest of the way. The extra point attempt sailed wide with 3:38 to go.
For the second straight playoff game, Liam Cullagh came up with the onside kick attempt. The Warriors used back to back handoffs to DeLuca to earn a first down and two runs from Shame Frommer resulted in six yards, but KP faced 4th and 5 with 1:08 to go.
“The feeling is surreal; all the hard work throughout the year has really come together right now,” DeLuca said. “That was an A-plus effort. Reading over there played a great game, we played a better one. It was the little things that counted in that game. They made a lot of big plays and we just had to keep our mind straight to come back from those hard plays.”
Lee put his faith back in the passing game. Jenesky came in motion from left to right and split out with DeLuca heading in the opposite direction. That left Jenesky open for the catch and 16 yards, converting the first down and giving King Philip the win. It was Jenesky’s third catch of the game – he had just two all season prior to the game.
“Mazur making catches, Jenesky making another at the end…it was just awesome,” Lee said. “Just unbelievable, unbelievable. And then Morganelli made a catch down there, Gio had one on the wheel. It was just crazy.”
For Lee, the program has come a long way since he took over in 2005.
”No disrespect to anybody but football was in a very bad spot when we got there,” Lee said. “I was just hugging it out with Rich Hardwood, who has helped me build this program and made sure these kids have what they need. As a regional school you lose a lot to Xaverian and we lost a lot to Feehan in the beginning. We were always trying to get the kids and the community to buy in. Building a culture is harder than building a team. Coming out today and seeing all of those people, I was like where are we? It’s taken 12 years to build this.
“If you’re a young coach out there and you say our school doesn’t have it, this is not the right place, we can’t win here…you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. You can win anywhere, KP proves it. You win at KP, you can win at everywhere.
“I am not a great coach. What I do is I hire great people and I have great assistant coaches. My defensive coordinator Matt Wassel and [offensive coordinator] John Sariandies – Norwood, shame on them for not standing by him when he was trying to do the right things down there – we have great, great coaches and they’re winners, I love them.”
King Philip finishes the season 12-0 as D1A State Champions.