Upper Dublin's Gutsy Comeback Falls Just Short in State Semifinal

Upper Dublin saw its remarkable season come to an end in Friday’s PIAA 5A state semifinal. Photos provided courtesy of Troy Leatherbury. Check back for a gallery of photos: https://solsports.zenfolio.com/f745224687

PIAA 5A State Semifinal

The Flying Cardinals had just completed their final post game meeting, an emotional meeting after a season-ending loss in the state semifinals. The players gathered for one last huddle and broke with one word, “Family.”

And what a family they were.

The hugs, the handshakes and the tearful good-byes marked the end of a magical season that will go down in the record books, but while the season may have ended, the bonds this football family shared will remain for a lifetime.

“It’s been a (heck) of a season,” senior quarterback Colin O’Sullivan said. “I can’t even speak to it. It’s just so unreal.

“I love those guys, and to be able to go every week with them – it just meant the world, and it sucks that it’s over now.”

Coach Bret Stover could relate to the emotions his senior quarterback was feeling. It turns out, he has been down this road before. His son Ryan was the quarterback of the 2015 squad that rolled to league and district titles before falling in the state semifinals to Parkland (30-14) and closed out the season with an identical 14-1 record.

“Colin was around my program from (a youngster) on,” the UD coach said. “It’s like doing it again with your son. I kind of have that same feeling, and I know exactly where he’s at emotionally right now because my last snap I remember, when Ryan went through it here. It’s just tough.

“It’s hard to say good-bye when you’re a senior, and it’s your last snap. A lot of these kids won’t put equipment on again. I’m proud of what we did. I’m proud of the accomplishments of this team. They’ll be remembered as one of the best, for sure.”

They’ll also be remembered as a team that never gave up. The Cardinals trailed 14-0 at halftime and saw that deficit grow to 21-0 before they came roaring back. The comeback began late in the third quarter after UD’s defense forced a punt, and the Cardinals took over at midfield.

On the second play of the drive, O’Sullivan found Starling Reaves for a diving 34-yard reception at the 16-yard line. Back-to-back runs by Chris Kohlbrenner put the ball on the four-yard line where O’Sullivan connected with Griffin Pensabene for a touchdown, and after Austin Pendleton’s extra point, it was a 21-7 game with 3:02 remaining in the quarter.

“Colin made plays, he’s made plays all year for us,” Stover said of his senior quarterback who threw for 237 yards - 177 in the second half. “He was just able to find the right guy. He got Star (Starling Reaves) down the middle, and I think that kind of jumpstarted us - ‘Hey, maybe we’re not done.’ I think the kids believed in that, and that’s what really kind of sparked us.”

The Cardinals still trailed by two touchdowns when they took possession at their own 36 with 7:14 remaining in the fourth quarter.  It looked like the drive might stall before it got started as UD faced a fourth-and-10, but O’Sullivan found DJ Cerisier for a 10-yard gain and a first down, marking the beginning of a gutsy 64-yard touchdown drive that was capped with O’Sullivan connecting with Cerisier for a 13-yard TD catch that made it a 21-14 game with 4:59 remaining.

The UD defense once again stood tall, and it was three-and-out for Imhotep. The Cardinals took over at their own 27 and advanced all the way to Imhotep’s 28 where the drive stalled.

Imhotep took over with 1:28 remaining and ran out the clock.

“I’m very proud of the way we competed – (trailing) 21-0, we could have gone away, but we didn’t,” Stover said. “We played a good football team tonight. We didn’t get blown out. We had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.

“We left points on the field in the first quarter, second quarter. You’ve got to get points in playoff games.”

And what changed in a second half?

“We were just finding holes in the defense,” Kohlbrenner said. “If the QB scrambles out, you just run to where there’s open space.”

Kohlbrenner – who had runs of 15 and 12 yards out of the wildcat - had a highlight reel run after the catch, escaping one would-be tackler after another for an 18-yard gain to the Imhotep 25 to keep the Cardinals’ final drive alive.

“I’m just doing it for my seniors,” Kohlbrenner said. “Tawfiq (Bartlett), who is one of our key players, tore his ACL week five, so we’re just doing it for him, we’re doing it for the seniors. I wanted to play another week with my seniors, but we came up a little short.”

While there was no mistaking the players’ disappointment, there also was a sense of pride.

"I'm proud,” Pensabene said. “A lot of teams go down 21- 0 to a group of guys like this and they're calling it quits. We fought back. We gave it a (heck) of an effort, gave it our all, brought it back to a one-possession game and just couldn't get it done."

"It feels like last year, one possession away. We were so close, just close to making history and that's the part that sucks."

As for their team’s gutsy comeback, the players weren’t surprised. Comebacks – even improbable ones - are not all that unusual for this Flying Cardinal squad.

“We all just believe in each other – we’re never going to quit,” Kolhbrenner said. “We were down 15 points with a minute and 30 (seconds) left against North Penn, and we came back and won that game.

“Last year, we were in the same situation. We were down 14 with eight minutes left (against Plymouth Whitemarsh), and we came back and forced overtime, so we knew we weren’t quitting until there was zero on the clock.”

"Our North Penn game, that was 20 times more improbable than this comeback,” Pensabene said. “We knew if we could come back in that game, then we definitely could come back in this game. It's a lot of our (guys’) last game, there's no way we were going to go away, no way we were going to give up. I don't care if we were down by 50, we were going to keep fighting. It wasn't really just about believing - of course we all believed, but we weren't just going to go away."

“It just speaks to everything we’ve done all year,” O’Sullivan said. “All these guys are resilient. Adversity hit us and we just kept punching back. They had the last punch, but it doesn’t define us as a team. We’re still one of the best to ever do it here. I love all of those guys.”

O’Sullivan clearly impressed an Imhotep assistant coach who sought him out after the game.

“Hey buddy, I don’t think I’ve seen a tougher kid in my life,” the assistant said. “The way you stood in there with that stuff going on. You’ve been the best kid we’ve seen this entire year. Keep your head up, all right?”

O’Sullivan and his Cardinal teammates closed out a memorable season with an SOL Continental Conference title, the District 1 5A crown and a state semifinal finish. The loss was the first of the season for the Cardinals, who closed out the year with a 14-1 record.

“It’s tough, knowing it’s the last time you’re playing with your guys,” Kohlbrenner said. “Especially since the guys I’ve been playing with for 12 years now – it’s hard to see. This season was amazing. It definitely left a mark on this 2022 team. We just have to build back and be ready for next year.”
Upper Dublin               0-0-7-7   14
Imhotep Charter         7-7-7-0   21

The end of an era: They will be a tough act to follow – the senior class that provided the nucleus of this year’s successful squad.

“Hardest working group I’ve ever seen,” senior Colin O’Sullivan said. “There’s so many of us that are going to do great things in college.

“We’ve all worked so hard at it. It’s such a good group of guys you just love to be around. That was the best part – just going out, hanging out with them. Those guys are my best friends. I loved every second of it.”

Griffin Pensabene echoed similar sentiments.

I love every single one of these guys, I've been through everything with them,” he said. “We've been through it at camp, we're out in 110-degree weather bleeding, sweating for each other. I'm going to miss these guys like crazy. Playing out here has been one of the greatest things I've done in my life, and I'll miss all these guys."

The Cardinals played their final game in front of packed stands at Wissahickon High School’s stadium.

 "Upper Dublin's not a big town, we're one of the smaller 5A schools so being able to unite the community and get everyone on our backs, I'm just proud of the way we fought,” Pensabene said. “Not a lot of teams would have done that and I'm proud of these guys."

"I've played a lot of sports throughout my life and been with a lot of different groups but there's nobody like this team. Nobody I've ever played with or competed with is like these guys, you see the fight in every single one of us. We're undersized compared to a lot of these teams, you see 'Tep, they're huge compared to us but we never gave up. That was really our mojo throughout the season, to not give up and I'm really proud of what we've done, and I just wish we could have crossed that finish line"

There’s no mistaking the impact the senior class had on the program.

“They’re going to be so hard to replace,” coach Bret Stover said. “There’s two- and three-year starters, four-year starters out here, which is unusual for us.

“It’s just fun to watch the progression of the kids in the program. Now the next level has to step in and take over, and it will be hard. We’re going to miss some really, really good football players who are going to be playing on Saturdays (at the collegiate level). I’m excited to go watch them play on Saturday, but I’m also excited to get going with the ’23 squad after we take off a couple of weeks.”

Pensabene had a message for the underclassmen.

"Learn from this,” he said. “Just like last year, we learned from that loss, and we went further. I want for all these underclassmen to learn from this, to fight and to finally win this game and make it to a state championship, which no Upper Dublin team ever has."