No. 1 St. Frances cruises past Gilman for second straight MIAA A football crown; Bangura rushes for 4 TDs (VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS HERE!!)


St. Frances running back Joachim Bangda crosses the end zone for one of his four touchdowns Sunday. The No. 1 Panthers claimed a second straight MIAA A Conference football crown with a 44-7 decision over seventh-ranked Gilman School at Johns Hopkins University. (photo – Jimmy Fields Sr.)

by Derek Toney

Video highlights by Gerrard Shelley

With Gilman School holding the lead for most of the first half against No. 1 St. Frances Academy in Sunday’s MIAA A Conference football title match, one of the biggest upsets in recent years was a possibility.

It literally and figuratively, went with the wind. Considering how the 2017 Panthers squad performed, a hurricane would be more appropriate.

The Panthers completed a season of utter dominance with a 44-7  decision over seventh-ranked Gilman at Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Field. Junior running back Joahim Bangura rushed for 168 yards and four touchdowns for St. Frances (11-0 overall).

The east Baltimore school absorbed an early jolt from the Greyhounds (5-7), taking command in the second half to win its second straight league title. The Panthers, ranked 13th in the latest USA Today Super 25, are the first undefeated MIAA A champ since McDonogh’s 11-0 campaign in 2013.

St. Frances co-coach Henry Russell said afterwards he felt “many emotions” playing his alma-mater Sunday in the final.

“Gilman played their hearts out. Their coaches and seniors did an awesome job to get them to this point and they gave everything they had,” said Russell, a 1999 Gilman graduate who was associate head coach under Biff Poggi for several seasons before departing for St. Frances after the 2015 season. “We knew that was coming, but we kept on fighting. You got to play us for 48 minutes.”

The Panthers didn’t get their first lead until Jake Larson’s 34-yard field goal with 3 minutes, 25 seconds remaining in the second quarter. It took a little more than four minutes in the third for St. Frances to be on its way to a 14th straight victory in MIAA A play.

“We knew once we started clicking we couldn’t be stopped,” said Bangura.

Bangura, a transfer from St. John’s College in the District, had a trio of five-yard touchdown runs in the second half. The Panthers scored on four of five possessions in the second half, taking advantage of field position.

St. Frances’ defense had a lot to do with that. After Gilman scored on its first possession, the Panthers suffocated the Greyhounds’ offense, allowing one first down in the second half.

“We knew from the jump they might get one (touchdown), but that’s it, we can rebound from it,” said St. Frances’ Under Armour All-American defensive end Eyabi Anoma. “We didn’t get our calls out and beat ourselves on the first drive. As the game went on, we got in sync and it’s really hard to stop us. We follow our responsibilities, play assignment football, we’re good.”

Sophomore linebacker Osman Savage snatched Gilman quarterback Purnell Hill’s screen pass and returned it 29 yards, putting the Panthers ahead 30-7.

Savage, who had a breakout freshman campaign as a running back last fall, celebrated with teammates on the sidelines putting on a “turnover chain,” a craze started by the University of Miami.

The Hurricanes have returned to prominence in college football. After an ambitious jump to the MIAA A from the C several years ago, St. Frances has become a national player with a burgeoning roster of talent from the Mid-Atlantic region.

The Panthers outscored league opponents (including playoffs), 341-50, this season.

“That’s a great team. We played as hard as we could’ve played and tried to hang around, but they’re terrific,” said Gilman coach Tim Holley, who coached his final game after two seasons. “It takes a lot to stop them.”

Riding a late season resurgence into a third MIAA A final (won playoff in 2011 and 2012), Gilman pulled off a successful onsides kick to open play Sunday. The Greyhounds went 55 yards in nine plays as senior Brandon Madison threw a quick jump pass to Bryce Bush for a touchdown.

Bangura’s first touch netted 43 yards as St. Frances reached the Greyhounds’ 7-yard line, but quarterback Jalon Jones mishandled the snap and Alex Slodzinski recovered for Gilman. It was the first of six St. Frances fumbles.

Bangura powered his way into the end zone on 4th-and-4 from seven yards, putting the Panthers on the scoreboard with 1:45 left in the first quarter. Jake Larson’s extra kick point was caught by the wind and sailed right.

Larson atoned with his 34-yard field goal. With the wind and momentum, St. Frances overwhelmed Gilman in the second half.

The Panthers’ defense forced a three-and-out and their offense got the ball at Gilman’s 30 (after 14-yard Gilman punt into wind). Jones reached the end zone from eight yards, capping an five-play series.

Starting at Gilman’s 17, St. Frances needed only three plays as Bangura scored from five yards with 5:24 left in the third. On the ensuing drive, the Greyhounds gained only their first down of the second half before Savage took Hill’s screen pass for a pick-six with 3:40 remaining in the quarter.

Gilman’s offense, which average starting position was the 17 in the second half, continued being draped by St. Frances, which got back at the Greyhounds’ 33. Five plays later, Bangura was back in the end zone.

Bangura open the fourth quarter with his fourth score, starting a running clock. The other time St. Frances trailed this season was at Spalding.

The Panthers won, 42-7.

“I think the coaches were a lot tighter than the kids,” said Russell, who shared coaching duties with Poggi this season. “The kids said they were fine after first score and fixed it. I thought our defense was incredible.”

The Panthers, ranked No. 1 in the state media poll, will play in the GEICO State Champions Bowl Series on Dec. 23 in Arizona. Russell said their opponent has yet to be determined.

Many figured 2017 would be the year St. Frances cemented itself as a perennial MIAA A title contender. The process started early as the Panthers claimed their first MIAA A crown last fall.

If 2017 is any indication, St. Frances may be the team to beat for years to come.

“Last year surprised most of us to be honest. When you do that, the expectations become higher and that’s very hard,” said Russell. “We were ranked No. 1 preseason and there’s a lot of pressure that comes along with that. I thought the kids did a great job tuning that stuff out and focusing on getting better every week.”

MIAA A Conference championship

at Johns Hopkins University

No. 1 St. Frances Academy 44, No. 7 Gilman School 7

Gilman 7 0 0 0 – 7

St. Frances 6 3 28 7 – 44

First quarter

Gilman – Bush 6 pass from Madison (Godine kick)

St. Frances – Bangda 7 run (kick failed)

Second quarter

St. Frances – Larson 34 field goal

Third quarter

St. Frances – Jones 8 run (Larson kick)

St. Frances – Bangda 5 run (Larson kick)

St. Frances – Savage 29 interception return (Larson kick)

St. Frances – Bangda 5 run (Larsok kicc)

Fourth quarter

St. Frances – Bangda 5 run (Larson kick)