by Jonathan Vander Lugt
Somebody forgot to tell Penn Charter that Saturday afternoon’s contest against Episcopal Academy wasn’t in an arcade.
No, quarterback Michael Hnatkowski wasn’t playing Tecmo Bowl.
Chris Tucker wasn’t playing Madden either.
In real life, the Quaker crew threw up 463 yards of offense — of which, 330 belonged to Hnatkowski and 164 to Tucker — in its high-octane 42-35 win over the Churchmen.
After the game, PC coach Tom Coyle handed the game ball to Tucker, who had what was probably the best game of his career under pretty tough circumstances.
“It was good for Tuck,” Coyle said. “He just lost his maternal grandfather this week. He actually had to miss practice yesterday because of the services but he came out and made plays.”
That’s right—playing with the pain of a recently-lost close relative, Tucker came onto the field Saturday having not practiced the day before and flat-out balled.
“It was tough,” Tucker said. “I was really close to him, but I was focused on what I could do. I played for him today.”
He caught six passes (three for a score) to make up his monster day. The last one, a 42-yarder that led to the Quakers’ go-ahead score, was made basically one-handed with a cornerback draped all over him.
He’s not a huge kid either—he stands around 5-feet-10-inches and is probably in the ballpark of 160 pounds, but is able to use his speed, strength, and receiving guile to beat cornerbacks.
“He gives us a lot of speed. We’re pretty fortunate to have him,” Coyle said. “He can certainly run, and he’s worked really hard with our offensive staff to become a better ball-catcher. He’s getting better every week, and this week was a good indication of that.”
“I try to run the best routes I possibly can,” Tucker said. “When I see the ball, I just attack it with everything…we just ran the plays that we ran in practice. We just executed.”
Hnatkowski did a pretty good job, too, even if he was a bit overshadowed by his ball-catching compatriot.
“This year we came out and started a little slow, but we’re starting to pick up our stride,” he said.
He picked it up Saturday to the tune of an 18-for-22, 330 yard, six-touchdown (five through the air, one on the ground) performance.
“Michael’s a really tough guy to defend,” Coyle said. “He threw the ball into tight windows. When you’re able to throw the ball to different spots all over the field, it makes it hard on the defense.”
And, “having a guy like Chris Tucker makes it a little bit easier,” Hnatkowski added.
All of this work was done after going down 14-0 in the blink of an eye. Episcopal Academy receiver Christian Feliziani lit up the field, taking the game’s opening kickoff 90 yards to the house, before scoring on a 75-yard touchdown pass from C.J. McAnally two drives later.
So, facing what could have been the beginning of a blowout, Penn Charter dug their heels in and chipped away. They scored the next three to take a 21-14 lead late in the first half, but let the Churchmen tie it up before the end of the frame.
“There was a lot of football left to be played, and we tried to stay positive,” Coyle said. “We’re a relatively young football team and we try to remain patient with our guys. We expect them to just be happy and play football. If we stay positive, then we can stay patient and just keep playing football.”
They traded scores throughout the second half—neither team led by more than a touchdown—and after PC’s go-ahead score with 1:48 left, EA got the ball on their own 33 with a full stock of timeouts. On the very first play, McAnally looked to the right hash marks about 20 yards downfield and let one loose—right into the hands of Penn Charter defensive back Denarii Beard.
Jake McCain rumbled forward on three straight carries to burn EA’s timeouts, gaining 12 yards and enough to earn a game-sealing first down. Hnatkowski fell to a knee to bring the game to its completion.
In addition to its passing bonanza, PC finished with 133 on the ground, 104 of which came on the legs of the bruising McCain.
“Jake got himself that first down just on grit,” Coyle said. “He’s not afraid to put his shoulder down and get a couple yards inside.”
McCain, Hnatkowski, Tucker and co. led the Quakers to their fourth win, and they’re 4-5 overall, a record that masks their true talent. They’re now 2-1 in the Inter-Ac—their lone loss came to conference leader Haverford School by one point in overtime—and they’ll look to keep rolling against Malvern Prep next week before taking on Germantown Academy in the 129th iteration of the nation’s longest scholastic football rivalry.
Wins like this one help a team figure out its identity—it’s easy to pack it in after going down early, but PC didn’t. This experience promises to be valuable as it heads into the final games of its 2015 slate.
“We could have hung our head at 14-0, or in the Haverford game when we fell behind by giving up an interception for a touchdown,” Coyle said. “But we fought back and took a lead there.”
And against Episcopal Academy, eventually won.
“Our team’s not afraid to step up and get involved in a football fight, so to speak,” Coyle went on. “I’m proud of the way they’re playing.”