When several Gilman School football assistants left for St. Frances Academy earlier in the year, many around the MIAA A Conference knew it would be a matter of time before the Panthers become a title contender.

The future arrived Friday night. The second-ranked Panthers defeated No. 1 Archbishop Spalding, 32-29, at Patterson Park’s Utz Field.

Freshman running back Osman Savage rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown, for St. Frances (9-1 overall, 5-0 MIAA A), and quarterback Isaiah Robinson threw for a pair of scores. Evan Fochtman accounted for 302 yards and 4 touchdowns for Spalding (7-2, 3-1 MIAA A). 

The east Baltimore school stunned the Cavaliers early before withstanding a second half rally to claim sole possession of first in the area’s premier league. The Panthers can secure the title outright with a victory over Mount St. Joseph next Saturday in Irvington.

Late Friday evening on Utz’s turf, St. Frances student and supporters celebrated the program’s biggest victory. Last season, the Panthers went 2-8, including a winless mark in MIAA A play.

“I believe that we did a good job all summer working out and getting together as a team,” said St. Frances senior tight end/defensive end Myles Wright, one of a handful of varsity holdovers. “We pushed toward our goal.”

“They don’t give up, nothing rattles them. I know the coaches get more rattled than they do,” said Panthers coach Henry Russell. “They keep their composure and when bad things happen, they keep playing and make plays when we need them.”

The Panthers received contributions from all over their roster to continue their turnaround Friday. Wright caught a scoring pass from Robinson, who completed 13 of 19 attempts for 143 yards.

Brightwell, a senior transfer from Delaware’s St. George’s who’s committed to Temple, finished with 108 total yards and a rushing touchdown. Sam Thomas returned an interception 43 yards for a score, and senior Jordan Swann had a 56-yard touchdown catch and intercepted a pass.

Darion McKenzie and junior Eyabi Anoma also intercepted Fochtman, who nearly brought Spalding all the way back from a 18-point halftime deficit. Fochtman’s 13-yard throw to DaeSean Winston, followed with his two-point conversion pulled the Cavaliers to 24-21 with three minutes left in regulation.

The Panthers fell on Spalding’s onsides kick at midfield, and Brightwell found the end zone from 5 yards with 2:24 remaining, followed by Robinson’s conversion pass to Wright. The drive was set by Savage’s 35-yard blast. 

The Cavaliers answered in just 30 seconds as Fochtman (77 yards rushing), after a 55-yard pass to Jamari Jones, got to the corner of the end zone from a yard. His two-point conversion run made it 32-29 with 1:54 to play. 

St. Frances came out with another Spalding onsides kick, and ran out the remaining time. For the second straight week, the Panthers survived after building a huge lead.

“We wanted to set a tone but wanted to keep our composure,” said Thomas, whose team led Loyola Blakefield, 28-7, entering the fourth quarter before scratching out a 28-26 win last Friday at Utz Field. “We always say 0-0 at halftime, but we had some downfalls. We got it together.”

The Panthers served notice immediately, taking the opening possession 70 yards in 12 plays as Robinson threw a 10-yard strike to Wright. Four plays later, Swann nabbed Fochtman’s deep pass inside St. Frances’ 15 for an interception.

Swann got free the down the sidelines to capture Robinson pass for a 56-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-16. Late in the first half, Thomas intercepted Fochtman at the Panthers’ 43 and took it back for 6, extending the lead to 18-0. 

The Panthers outgained Spalding, 261-52, in the first half. 

“They got great players, film doesn’t do them justice,” said Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt. “We told the kids at halftime, we got to get it to a possession going into the fourth and that’s what happened.”

The Cavaliers found their offensive rhythm after halftime as Fochtman (20 of 30, 225 yards) connected with an open down the middle from 16 yards. and DaeSean Winston gathered Fochtman’s toss down the right sideline for a 29-yard score, bringing the Severn school to within 18-13. 

Spalding’s defense slowed St. Frances’ offense, but interceptions by Fochtman on back-to-back possessions stunted momentum. The latter INT produced points for St. Frances as Savage barrelled his way 25 yards into the end zone.

St. Frances rushed for 242 yards Friday, led by Savage, who posted 83 yards in each half.

“Everyday we just put bricks on top of each other to get better and better,” said Savage, who had 22 carries. “Everyday we got a tighter bond and when adversity comes, that’s when our championship mark shows.”

The Panthers have been galanized since wide receiver Tyree Henry went down with a season-ending spinal injury. After a few peaks and many valleys since starting football nine years ago, St. Frances will have its first No. 1 ranking in next week’s area polls. 

“Never in my wildest dreams I thought we would be in this position,” said Russell who was associate head coach at Gilman under Biff Poggi who stepped down in January and now is a consultant for the University of Michigan football program. “I thought .500 would be a successful season. It’s all account of the love the kids have for each other and the foundation of what the program is about.”

No. 2 St. Frances Academy 32, No. 1 Archbishop Spalding 29

at Patterson Park

Spalding 0 0 13 16 – 29

St. Frances 12 6 0 14 – 32

First quarter

St. Frances – Myles Wright 10 pass from Isaiah Robinson (run failed)

St. Frances – Jordan Swann 56 pass from Robinson (run failed)

Second quarter

St. Frances – Sam Thomas 43 interception return (pass failed)

Third quarter

Spalding – Nick Vermillion 16 pass from Evan Fochtman (Camden Price kick)

Spalding – DaeSean Winston 29 pass fro Fochtman (pass failed)

Fourth quarter

St. Frances – Osman Savage 25 run (run failed)

Spalding – Winston 13 pass from Fochtman (Fochtman run)

St. Frances – Brightwell 5 run (Wright pass from Robinson)

Spalding – Fochtman 1 run (Fochtman run)