Throwback Thursday: The 2001 Neshaminy State Champion Season
As a Suburban One League fan and follower I was at once thrilled and surprised by the Redskins 2001 climb to gold. The thrills were, 1) seeing a team I had first begun to follow in 1951 win it, and, 2) seeing a second Suburban One team win a state championship. The surprise was that for all my years of following the Skins I was not sure this was their year, even as I saw 7 of their games unfold.
Although the Central Bucks West Bucks’ had lost the 2000 championship in overtime to Erie Cathedral Prep, which also ended a 59-game winning streak and three consecutive state titles; there was still some that thought the Bucks’ would still dominate, despite a second abrupt coaching change going into 2001.
And Neshaminy had last made the playoffs in the first state championship season of 1988 where they ran into Cedar Cliff and future pro Kyle Brady. In 2013 I sat at a game with Rick Lee, who was a coach on the 1988 Neshaminy sideline and he gave me some lasting impressions of Brady and the 1988 game at J. Birney Crum Stadium. Ouch! 24-0 Cedar Cliff.
In retrospect, the 2001 record of Neshaminy is a tribute to tenacity and daring, and what can be accomplished with everybody on the same page. As we will see this was not your typical state championship team that went out and beat everyone by 40 points. This team had a will and desire that may have outdone them all.
Four times the Skins were down by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter of games; 12 – 14 – 14 – and 15 were the tallies behind. Six games were won by a TD or less. Two games were won with under a minute to go in the game; one with 00:00 left on the clock. It was not a season for the faint-of-heart.
Neshaminy had come off of a 6-4 tour in 2000, and Head Coach Mark Schmidt was starting his 7th season with a record of 32-29. Running Back Jamar Brittingham was returning for his senior season after setting a new team rushing record in 2000 and earning the Bucks County Courier Times player of the year. Jamar was not alone as 94 players dotted the 2001 Skins roster.
The 2001 Skins opened with Philadelphia Catholic League foe Father Judge. In the first quarter, Jamar Brittingham broke one for 64 yards to go up 6-0. A freshman kicker, Kevin Kelly, a future Penn State kicker made his first of many, many PATs, 7-0 Redskins. But the Crusaders came to play and in the second quarter scored twice – on a 44-yard Hennigar to O’Brien pass (PAT kick blocked); and a 13-yard Hennigar run (PAT O’Brien pass from Hennigar); 14-7 Judge at the half.
In the third quarter Brittingham ran a 5-yard score, probably off of a drive, and a pass for the PAT failed, leaving the third quarter score 14-13 Judge. The Crusaders’ O’Brien then ran back the ensuing kickoff 92 yards to the house, and then he kicked the PAT; at the end of three quarters Judge 21 Neshaminy 13. In the fourth quarter, Jamar broke one for 74 yards and a score, whereupon Skins junior QB Jay Wiater hit Geoff Donahue for a 2-point PAT. It’s knotted at 21 in the fourth stanza. But with a little less than 4 minutes left in the game the Crusaders QB Hennigar threw for 5 yards and a score to Mullen. The PAT kick was no good. After the kickoff Neshaminy would start a drive with 3:42 left in the game, down 27-21. On a third and one, Brittingham bolted for 44 yards and life. Two plays later Jamar ran the final 2 yards for his fourth TD of the game and a 27-27 tie. One of the finest kickers to come out of Bucks County who eventually would be “practically automatic”, freshman Kevin Kelly won the game with the PAT 28-27 Neshaminy.
And that was some idea of how this season would go, although of course, no one knew it as yet. A teacher’s strike at Bensalem High School in 2001 gave the Redskins their second victory without working up a sweat. The Owls were frustrated with a 1-10 season in 2001; and if the game had been played it might not have been pretty. But there is no resolution to what never happened.
For the first time in 2001 the Redskins had to don away whites for the trip to Perkasie and Poppy Yoder Field and the talented Pennridge Rams the next week. The Rams had opened with a loss to Carlsbad, California at home and beat North Penn and were at 1-1. They had a fine backfield with Hollenbach at QB, and Stephenson and Ryan Greiser running backs, the latter would set some records at Pennridge. Stephenson ran for a 4-yard score (T. Greiser kick), and a 2 yard score (Hollenbach run PAT); before Brittingham got a 2-yard TD and Kelly kick to find the Skins down at the half again 15-7. In the third quarter Jamar got another 2-yard TD, and Wiater again hit Donahue for a 2-point PAT and it was 15-15 at the end of three. But Ryan Greiser got a fourth quarter TD of 6 yards and T. Greiser kicked the PAT to put the Rams up 22-15. Then Jamar Brittingham was helped off the field with some hamstring soreness and the Redskin faithful had their hearts in their throats. But he soon returned and bolted 53 yards and with the Kelly PAT it was tied at 22 with over 7 minutes left in the game. With only 51 seconds left in the game, Brittingham again scored his fourth TD in a game to make it 28-22. Kevin Kelly’s attempted PAT was blocked. Final score 28-22 Skins.
The following week the North Penn Knights came to Heartbreak Ridge. Mike Pettine Junior was in his last season at North Penn and he had made the Knights a dangerous foe. I decided it was time to see this Neshaminy edition and took this one in. Neshaminy drew first blood with a first quarter Brittingham 3-yard run and Kelly kick, 7-0 after one. In the second quarter the Knights’ answered with a Thomas 20-yard run and Mancino PAT to knot it at 7.
The next score was Kevin Kelly’s initial Field Goal, for 27 yards; 10-7 Skins. North Penn answered with a 68-yard TD pass hookup from Spurio to Zebluim, and PAT; 14-10 Knights. But Brittingham got his 10th TD of the season, this one 6 yards; Kelly PAT 17-14 Neshaminy. Then Neshaminy’s Chuck Koch recovered a Knights’ fumbled punt at their 20 yard line. This time the first TD this season not by Brittingham ensued when Jay Collins plunged one yard to pay dirt. The PAT was no good, and the first half ended 23-14 Redskins. The second half turned defensive, especially for the Skins who with Erik Pederson, Geoff Donahue, and Jay Collins repeatedly hammer the Knight’s QBs in the second half. However the Skins also did not score and the first half was the game at 23-14 Neshaminy to go to 4-0 on the season.
On Friday night, September 28, 2001 it was time for the Bucks’ of CB West to visit the Ridge. I had seen the Bucks opener against nationally-ranked St. Joes Prep of the Philadelphia Catholic League with star RB Kyle Ambrogi. In a surprise to me, the Bucks upset the Hawks with a late TD pass 21-17. They were 3-1 coming in with a loss to North Penn 20-7. As the team of the nineties with a record of 121-8 it was no surprise that the Skins had not beaten the Bucks since 1989; 27-13 when Mike Frederick was all state for Neshaminy under John Chaump. I had to take this one in. I was not disappointed.
After a scoreless first quarter, Neshaminy scored three times in the second period – Donahue 1 yard run; Brittingham 12 yard run. Kelly missed both PATs, but then kicked a 31-yard FG, go figure. Halftime had the Skins up 15-0, a rare spot this season. The only third quarter score was a 2-yard run by CBW back Kniesc with a failed pass PAT, and it was 15-6 Skins after three quarters. But in the fourth quarter, Kniesc scored again from 7 yards out and Wilberly kicked the PAT and it was only 15-13 Skins. With only 1:57 left in the game, West’s Lepley got in from a yard out and the pass attempted PAT was missed and it was 19-15 CB West. Neshaminy received the kickoff and started from their 30. Skins QB Wiater then lobbed a soft floater to WR Mike Loveland who raced all the way to the West 5-yard line. The CB West defense then rose to the task and shut down three running attempts to reach the end zone. On 4th down from the 4, a calm Wiater fakes a handoff to Brittingham, rolls left, checks off of Ennis, and hits Scott Mullin between the numbers for the winning TD with no time left on the clock, 21-19 Neshaminy, no PAT attempted.
I am sure that inside the inner circle of the Neshaminy faithful confidence was high for the season; but honestly, as an outsider, it seemed if the Skins were living on the edge. They were a valid enough 5-0; but it was far from easy, and the margins were slim. Discounting the Bensalem forfeit, the Skins had scored exactly 100 points for 25 per game average, while allowing 82 for a 20.5 defensive average. They had to come from behind three of the four games played. Whew!?!?
But the Skins had my attention and the following Saturday they had a day date with the Patriots of CB East at War Memorial Field in Doylestown. I journeyed up, and things weren’t much different!
East had a nice club in 2001 and came in to the fray 4-1. A good QB in Felicetti and a stiff defense were the Patriots features. The Pats defense kept the Neshaminy O in check for three quarters and on a first quarter Felicetti run (Mattern kick) and third quarter 35-yard pass Felicetti to Islinger (Mattern kick), the Patriots led the Skins 14-0. In the fourth quarter, Mr. Brittingham took it in from 11 yards out (Kelly kick) to close it to 14-7. Then Jamar capped a 13-play, 86 yard drive with a 2-yard run to pull to 14-13. There was only 29 seconds left in the game. Coach Schmidt calls for two, opting for a win or loss rather than OT. QB Wiater reads blitz; fakes a hand off to Brittingham and quickly hits 225-pound FB Geoff Donahue for the winning points; final after kick off and some D, 15-14 Neshaminy.
The Redskins finally got some breathing room in two of the next three contests. Next up was Harry S. Truman, this year sporting a 4-2 record in the last year under Coach Galen Snyder before moving to his alma mater Pennsbury to coach. This game was usually a mismatch due to a different level in the programs at the two schools. This time the Redskins put four scores on the board, on the ground and in the air to go up by a 26-0 count before the Tigers’ answered with a TD but missed pass PAT attempt to make the score 26-6 Skins at the half. Only one second half score was a Neshaminy Wiater to Donahue 5-yard pass and Kelly kick to make the final 33-6 Neshaminy.
The Skins were now 7-0 and while it hadn’t been easy some observations could be made. Certainly Brittingham was a dynamite running back, but the offensive line was also solid and QB Wiater was a fine field general, calm, and not without passing ability. The team was a run first O, but when needed, Wiater got the job done, being 43 for 78 for 466 yards at this point and picked only twice, one in each of the first two games. And Wiater had won two games with last ditch 2-point PAT throws. Of course, Brittingham was the teeth of the running attack and in the 7th game the overlooked Skins D came to the forefront; limiting the Tigers to 79 yards rushing.
Abington away was the next Saturday. This was at the old day-only field some blocks from the Abington High School. Tim Sorber had just been made permanent head coach at Abington after one year as interim head man. The Ghosts were just building, but Neshaminy-Abington had many interesting meetings in the past. Past scores of 8-7 (1988), 18-15 (1990), 17-13 (1992), 21-20 (1993), and incredibly 69-36 (1997) indicate some of the battles the Ghosts and Skins had over the years. And this game was for three quarters, no different. After one it was 7-7, at the half it was 14-13 Skins. After three it was 21-21. But the Skins exploded for three fourth quarter TDs to put this one away 42-21 and it secured a berth in the playoffs for the Redskins at 8-0 on the season.
Brittingham had 35 carries for 315 yards and three TDs. Donahue had 8 carries for 53 yards and two TDs. Ennis made the most of one carry for 19 yards and a TD. Wiater hit Ennis, Brittingham, and Mullin in 7 of 13 attempts for 79 yards when needed. There were two interceptions, the first since the second game of the season.
It was back to the Ridge for Council Rock next Friday night. The big rivalry for Rock was the Pennsbury Falcons, but the Rock and Neshaminy School Districts abut also, and this was a natural rivalry sparked by the fact that the Skins were only 3-8 versus Rock the prior 11 seasons. This was the last season of one Council Rock before it became Council Rock North and Rock South opened for the 2002 season. I had been away from the Skins for three weeks and returned to take this one in on a very cold, windy night. This time the Neshaminy club looked what I termed “typical”. The defense held the Indians to 47 yards rushing for the game. Mr. B rushed 24 times for 169 yards and 3 TDs. QB Jay Wiater connected with four different receivers for 8 of 15 and 150 yards. The final was 35-0, and Donahue and Collins had the other two TDs. The victory clinched the Suburban One National Championship for Neshaminy.
As normal for many seasons, the arch rival Pennsbury Falcons was the last regular season game for the Skins. Big rivalry, big game, and many seasons it was for league, or conference supremacy. I had seen many of them, but by 2001 in my 51st season of high school football, I was shying away from the “big crowd” games generally; with exceptions. I did not take this one in this year. The Skins would be favored this year at 9-0 over an unusual 4-5 Falcon squad coming in. But Falcon Field had been very unkind to the Redskins; and 7,000 fans did venture to see the backyard brawl. A Donahue 18 yard run and Kelly PAT gave the Redskins a 7-0 lead at the quarter. In the second Kelly added a 37-yard FG to make it 10-0. The Falcons answered with a Cordero one-yard plunge and Onal PAT to close to 10-7. Before the half Brittingham bolted for 39 yards and a TD; Kelly PAT 17-7 Skins. Still before halftime Kevin Kelly booted a 54-yard FG to make it 20-7 Neshaminy at the half. Kelly’s kick tied the record for the longest FG in lower Bucks County with that of Pennsbury’s Mike Augustin in 1980.
In the third period Jamar Brittingham had a 5-yard TD run, 26-7 Skins. The Redskins tried a pass for a 2-pt PAT, but it did not connect. The Falcons made it interesting in the fourth quarter. Falcon RB Cordero went 25 yards for a score and then QB Speer hit Applebaum for the 2-pt conversion, and it was 26-15. Later Speer got in from the one and it was 26-21. A two-point conversion would bring the Falcons within a FG of tying, so it was a natural to go for two. But the run was stopped and the score remained 26-21 to the final whistle. The Neshaminy Redskins had achieved their first unbeaten regular season since 1988, the first year of state championship play. And home field advantage for the districts would go to the Skins.
First round (quarter-final) would be familiar Central Bucks East, who the Skins barely beat 15-14 in week six. It would be the Skins first playoff appearance in 13 years.
Taking no chances on depending on another two-point conversion to win, the fired up Skins scored on its first three possessions (2 TDs, Kelly 33-yard FG) and had no turnovers. Meanwhile the Patriots scored once in that sequence and the halftime score was Neshaminy 17-7. In the third quarter Keith Ennis had a 71-yard run for Neshaminy and it was 24-7 after three. The Pats managed a fourth quarter TD and PAT but it ended 24-14 Skins, giving Neshaminy their first ever playoff victory, and lower Bucks County’s first ever playoff victory. Neshaminy earned a semi-final meeting with Downingtown, no stranger to championship play.
As with Council Rock, this was the Downingtown Whippets, still one school before Downingtown East would open in 2003. The Whippets had two state championship appearances to their credit, settling for silver in 1994, but bringing home gold in 1996. The Whippets came in 9-2 with two losses to strong non-league teams and a very beefy 87 players including two Division One line prospects. I had seen them before, and thought this would be a real test. It was a cool, pleasant evening for playoff football, and I had to see this one.
Kevin Kelly opened scoring with a 40-yard field goal; 3-0 Skins. It was becoming apparent that Kelly, a freshman (the roster says sophomore), was already becoming a factor for the Skins. Besides the field goals, Kelly’s PATs were solid and kickoffs long and deep. Next Wiater hit Ennis for a beautiful 69-yard TD and Kelly PAT and it was 10-0 Redskins. But Downingtown answered with a Helm 2-yard run and Hughes PAT to narrow it to 10-7. Before the first quarter ended, Jay Collins went in from the two; the PAT was missed, and it was 16-7 Neshaminy at the end of one. There was no second quarter scoring and the score remained for the half. In the third, Collins went in from the one, and then Wiater hit Donahue for the 2-point PAT and it was temporarily 24-7. But a Downingtown drive led to a 1-yard Helm TD and Hughes PAT to make it 24-14 after three. The teams traded drives and short plunges again in the fourth making it 30-20 as both teams’ PAT tries failed. Then Mr. Brittingham bolted 57 yards with 3:56 left in the game to seal the Whippets fate this night. Kelly converted and it was 37-20, and Neshaminy would play for the District One title.
The second consecutive game with no turnovers greatly helped the Skins as the Whippets proved capable with the ball. They had 22 first downs to Neshaminy’s 14, more passing yards and were within 31 yards of the Skins rushing total. But a fumble lost and 2 picks revealed the truth that turnovers are costly; and were to the Whippets.
The buzz among my posse of football faithful was that the Skins should be able to handle the Pioneers of Conestoga for the District One Championship. I do not know why this thought prevailed, the Pioneers were 11-1 with their only loss a regular season loss to still powerful Strath Haven, and I just hoped the locals could do it. But I was going to see it for sure; I had never seen Conestoga play before. I was making exceptions weekly to my “big crowd” aversions now.
My friends seemed to be correct as Neshaminy took control of this one early and built up a 28-0 lead by the fourth quarter. QB Waiter went 4 for 4 passing in a first quarter drive, culminating in a 16-yard TD pass to Mark Beck for the first TD of the game. Kelly would be a perfect 4 for 4 on PATs this night. In the second stanza, Brittingham ran one in from a yard out and also threw an option pass for 39 yards to Ennis for a score and it was 21-0 Neshaminy at the half. After a scoreless third quarter, a short buck by Collins and Kelly PAT put it far out of reach for the Pioneers, but they did not quit. Conestoga was not one-dimensional, but the Skins throttled their running game, limiting them to 36 yards rushing. They went to the air for two late scores and tried two 2-pt PATS, missing both to make the final score Neshaminy 28-12. Neshaminy played turnover-free ball for the third consecutive game, a formula for success, and the Redskins’ first-ever District One Championship.
The Redskins would meet another storied program, Cumberland Valley of District 3 or Bethlehem Catholic of District 11; in the Eastern PA final the following Saturday. A buddy of mine and I had arranged to go to Hershey the day after the Neshaminy-Conestoga game to see Cumberland Valley and Bethlehem Catholic (then 4A) square off, sort of scouting who would be Neshaminy’s next opponent. A great offensive shootout occurred and the final was 41-31 Cumberland Valley.
A trio of posse, including me, went back to Hershey for the Neshaminy-CV encounter the next Saturday. After witnessing their victory over Bechi the prior week, and knowing the various conundrums the Skins faced early in the season; we were not as confident as we were hopeful for a Redskin win this day. I had seen CV five times before and this included their state title year of 1992. Win or lose they were impressive, and always in every game.
This turned out to be one of my “best games ever” ratings. It was a game of two different halves, and the first was a disaster for the Redskins. They kicked off and stopped the first CV drive and then drove to the CV 15- yard line. But the first turnover in four games, a pick stopped the drive. The Eagles of CV were relentless on the ground and two long ball-possession drives in the first half made the score 12-0 Cumberland Valley at the half. There was reason to worry. Among our three, we repeated the old cliché that the Redskins had to score after getting the opening kickoff of the second half and then shut the Eagles’ down. And this they did, and it was 12-7 Eagles. Then the Skins put on another third quarter drive leading to a short Brittingham TD and the third missed PAT by both teams made it 13-12 Neshaminy after three quarters. In the fourth quarter the Skins Loveland returned a blocked CV punt 19 yards for a TD, making it 19-12 Neshaminy. Cumberland Valley then roared back with a short drive capped by a 41-yard inside reverse and this time a PAT kick was good and the score was knotted at 19 all. A little over 6 minutes remained in the game.
Keith Ennis almost broke the ensuing kickoff, returning it to the Eagles’ 20-yard line. A short-field drive was culminated by a late Brittingham scamper and a two-point PAT try failed, making the score 25-19 late, but with time enough for this CV team. And they demonstrated a nice two-minute drive that looked as if it would be successful until with 1:27 left in the game, on a pass completion Neshaminy safety Devon Swope pried the ball loose and Neshaminy recovered. The Redskins then successfully ran out the clock. They would play for a state championship.
I had attended games at Hershey many times including twice this season, but beastly rain and cold prevented me from seeing my first ever state championship. I rectified this in 2002 and 2004 (Neshaminy again) and have not been there since.
Despite matching 14-0 records, Neshaminy would get the underdog role at states for a matchup with the WPIAL’s powerful Woodland Hills. Unlike the hold your breath schedule the Redskins played, the Wolverines danced through western PA football handily, only tested once, a 31-28 regular season win over equally powerful Pittsburgh Central Catholic. The Wolverines’ boasted one Steve Breaston, a wide receiver, kick returner who was destined for the NFL, and is still at Kansas City as far as I know. Ryan Munday, another future NFL player was also on the Wolverines squad.
But this Neshaminy team was not to be denied. Opponents blamed the terrible rain and mud, but both teams played under the same conditions as is always the case. Neshaminy opened scoring in the first with a Collins 3-yard run. Eschewing the kick due to the weather, a 2-point pass PAT attempt did not connect and it was 6-0 Skins. In the second quarter Mr. Breaston had a one yard run and they kicked the PAT and it was 7-6 Woody High at the half. But in the third quarter Brittingham got in from the four and Wiater hit Mullin with the 2-point PAT and it was 14-7 Neshaminy. Then late in the fourth quarter, Jamar Brittingham got loose for 45 yards; Kelly kicked the PAT and at 21-7, despite the rain and mud Hershey never smelled so sweet.
Besides the obvious running of Jamar Brittingham, despite the conditions, Wiater threw the ball 12 times with 10 completions and 181 yards in key situations. The Skins played turnover-free ball again while picking off two Wolverine passes. Brittingham, Collins, Donahue, Ennis, and Wiater all ran the ball, and the first four named plus Mullin were on the receiving end of passes from Wiater. And per usual, little is said of the defense that shut down a powerful team and made a big fourth quarter stand on a fourth and two situation. LB Pat Carroll led the D with 14 tackles. This is an example of the balance and efficiency that this team played with in annexing a state championship.
RivalsHigh25, a prestigious high school football rating organization, on their December 24 final 2001 ratings placed this Neshaminy team as number 9 in the nation!
Various Pennsylvania football News class 4A all-state positions were attained by Neshaminy’s Jamar Brittingham (1st team RB); Steve Brett (2nd team O line); and defensively LB’s Chuck Koch (2nd team) and Jay Collins (3rd team). Woodland Hills’ Steve Breaston, Kareem Dutrieulle, Ryan Munday, and Larry Connelly were also all-state selections.
More than anything, as someone from the outside, I saw this team as truly a “guts and glory” organization. They possessed a fine head coach and very capable and experienced coaching staff and followed a tradition that started in 1952, my second year of high school football. The season proved how good players they were, but they were no so heralded at the season’s beginning. This was truly a “team”. Every facet that makes a good team developed in sun, heat, and sweat; and cold, chills and rain and mud. Tenacity and proficiency ruled the day. Of all the state champions I have seen play in person and on TV, this one seems to be a very special breed. I love high school football and follow many teams; I missed all too many great teams over the years, but I am certainly glad that I got to see this Neshaminy team 7 times in person.
Much of this article is from the fine Neshaminy homepage and used by permission.
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