There was no letdown for St. Frances Academy, and one of the biggest turnarounds in area football is complete.

The top-ranked Panthers defeated No. 6 Mount St. Joseph, 34-20, in a MIAA A Conference contest at Pleyvak Field in Irvington Saturday. Senior running back Gary Brightwell rushed for 168 yards and four touchdowns for St. Frances (10-1 overall, 6-0 MIAA A), and Isaiah Swann caught a scoring pass and intercepted two passes.

The east Baltimore school put up 20 unanswered second half points, clinching its first A Conference championship. Last season, St. Frances went 2-10 overall and 0-6 in league play.

“You got to trust the process,” said Panthers junior offensive linemen Antonio Derry.

The process started in January with a new coaching staff. Then came a host of transfers joining a handful of holdovers including Derry. 2016 was thought to be rebuild.

“It’s amazing. I’m so happy for the kids,” said St. Frances coach Henry Russell, who was a longtime assistant at Gilman School. “I don’t think anyone expected this, besides them. They came to work, believed in each other, never made excuses and got better every week.”

The Panthers served notice as a contender, winning at then-No. 1 McDonogh School last month. Last weekend, they defeated then-No. 1 Archbishop Spalding to clinch at least a tie for the MIAA A crown. 

There was no complacency Saturday as the Panthers never trailed. St. Frances trailed only once at quarter’s end (1st quarter vs. Gilman School) in league play. 

“All season we knew a win doesn’t matter if we don’t compete just as hard the next week,” said Swann, a senior transfer from defunct Eastern Christian Academy. “Spalding was a great win but we didn’t want to overlook Mount St. Joseph.”

Swann’s 25-yard catch in the corner of the end zone with 2:15 left in the third quarter broke the game open, extending the Panthers’ lead to 27-13. Brightwell, who’s verbally committed to Temple University, made it 34-13 with his 4th score – a 15-yard burst.

The contest turned late in the opening half with St. Frances up 15-13. Mount St. Joseph quarterback Christian Carter threw a quick pass across the middle to Gary Agurs just over midfield. Panthers linebacker Sam Thomas stripped the ball and returned it 55 yards to Gaels’ 2-yard line.

The next play, Blackwell sped wide into the corner of the end zone, giving St. Frances a 21-13 lead with 48 seconds left before halftime.

“That was a momentum-changing play,” said Russell. “To stop a high-powered offense like that you got to make big plays.”

After allowing touchdowns on the Gaels’ first two possessions, the Panthers slowed down Mount St. Joseph’s offense as senior linebacker Kingsley Johnathan had four sacks. Junior defensive end Eyabi Anoma recorded two sacks and blocked a punt that helped lead to Swann’s touchdown catch from Isaiah Robinson.

St. Frances accumulated 431 yards Saturday, 268 on the ground with freshman running back Osman Savage finishing with 88 yards. Robinson threw for 153 yards (completed 10 of 24 throws).

Russell, who watched a massive offensive front power Gilman to the MIAA A title last season, said the emergence of James Goodwin, Gary McDowell, Ben Amadi, Josh Miller, Antonio Derry and Darian Dalcourt on St. Frances’ offensive line has been critical this season.

“Offensive line is the hardest position play, especially when you don’t know each other, said Russell. “It’s about cohesion and they’ve become one unit. Their comradie translated on the field.”

“A lot of people said our line was average and that’s why we lost. This year, everybody said our line would be our weakness,” said Derry, 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds. “We just come to work trying to prove something.”

Mount St. Joseph (7-3, 3-2 MIAA A) got two scoring throws from Carter (20 of 32, 220 yards) and a touchdown run from junior Sam James (82 yards). After a promising start offensively, the Gaels didn’t score again until late in the fourth quarter.

The west Baltimore school could’ve forced a three-way tie for first with a win Saturday. That would’ve meant the winner of the Gaels’ match at No. 2 Spalding would tie with St. Frances for the title.

“It seemed like we made one mistake on each drive that kind of set us off schedule,” said Mount St. Joseph coach Rich Holzer. “I was proud of the kids because they marched the ball down to their end of the field just about every drive, but it was the one play where we’d get sacked for a 5-yard loss, stuff like that. We just had trouble overcoming that.”

The Gaels honored their seniors after the game. About 40 yards away, St. Frances parents and supporters celebrated another moment in historic and unlikely season. 

“This is one of the toughest conferences in the country. There’s no doubt about it. Every week there’s no down team, so there’s no room for error and to go undefeated through league play is amazing,” said Russell, whose team play at Florida’s IMG Academy, the nation’s No. 1 team Saturday. “I’m really happy for St. Frances. It’s a great place, so much history and tradition, but not in football, so we’re really happy to bring a football championship to St. Frances, East Baltimore.”

No. 1 St. Frances Academy 34, No. 6 Mount St. Joseph 20

St. Frances 15 6 6 7 – 34

Mount St. Joseph 7 6 0 7 – 20

First quarter

St. Frances – Gary Brightwell 2 run (John Gant kick)

Mount St. Joseph – Gary Agurs 26 pass from Christian Carter (Ben Austin kick)

St. Frances – Brightwell 8 run (Gant run)

Second quarter

Mount St. Joseph – James 11 run (run failed)

St. Frances – Brightwell 2 run (run failed)

Third quarter

St. Frances – Jordan Swann 25 pass from Isaiah Robinson (kick failed)

Fourth quarter

St. Frances – Brightwell 15 run (Gant kick)

Mount St. Joseph – Kupone James 13 pass from Carter (Austin kick)