HAVERFORD — An interception turned the last defensive play of Shomari Watts’ scholastic career into his biggest.
Much earlier in the game, Joe Nassib came up with an interception that might end up being the biggest play of his high school football career.
In an Inter-Academic League showdown that certainly will leave its share of bumps and bruises, Nassib’s first-quarter interception return for a touchdown was enough to give The Haverford School a 6-0 victory over Episcopal Academy Saturday in the 99th meeting between the archrivals.
The win was the Fords’ first over the Churchmen since 2001. Making the Fords (7-3, 3-2) more proud was the fact that it put the lid on the program’s best season since 1989.
“I want to win an Inter-Academic (League) title next year, but there is no better feeling than beating your rival and having the winning touchdown,” said Nassib, a junior defensive back who returned the pick 34 yards for the score. “No better feeling.”
Nearly 100 games featuring the same two programs will build up some tension. It showed throughout Saturday in a matchup that left numerous players grabbing for body parts as they hobbled their way back to the sideline.
Terance Fitzsimmons showed exactly what this game meant to both teams. The Fords senior running back was having a modest day when he was helped off the field early in the third quarter.
Fitzsimmons eventually shook off the pain — or at least sucked it up enough to get back on the field for the final stanza. Upon his return, he carried the ball eight times for 38 yards and helped the Fords chew up precious time.
Had Fitzsimmons not returned, the Churchmen (7-3, 2-3) could have been working with much better field position than they were when they finally got the ball back after a Fords drive that lasted 12 plays and seven-plus minutes. They gained possession on their 15-yard line with 2:38 left. That series became the last of the day for the Churchmen. Watts made sure of it.
After a personal foul call on Haverford School moved the ball up to the 30, Churchmen quarterback Taylor Wright dropped back and sent a pass over the middle. Reading the play from its outset, Watts stepped in front of the intended receiver and gave the ball back to his offense.
“They were rolling out the whole time,” said Watts, a 6-1, 220-pound linebacker. “I read his eyes. It didn’t even seem like I was looking at the ball when it went into my hands.”
Nearly 30 minutes after the game, hundreds of The Haverford School’s fans were still gathered on the turf field. This was not just a big win, but one that defines the season for coach Mike Murphy’s team.
With both the Fords and the Churchmen entering the game with two league losses, there was no title at stake. It didn’t matter. Both sides treated this like a championship tilt with everything on the line.
“It’s just a huge win against a very good football team,” said Murphy, who’s in his fourth year at the helm. “This is the way this game is supposed to be played. And you see how good football can energize a community. This caps a damn good season.”
Episcopal had its chances, with the best one coming on a drive that began in the third quarter and carried into the fourth. The Churchmen moved the ball deep into Fords territory and had a first-and-10 on the 20-yard line on the first play of the final frame.
On three of the few plays where he was held in check, fullback Stephen Faulkner ran for gains of three, two and two yards, respectively. On fourth-and-three from the 13 with 9:50 on the clock, the Fords defense stopped John Gormley short of the marker.
Faulkner finished the game with 88 tough yards on 18 carries. He also was around the ball all day defensively and contributed a sack.
“I feel like we played good enough to win,” said Faulkner, a senior captain who was one of the few Episcopal players with a dry eye after the game. “The seniors played their butts off. We played a game that we should have won. At the same time, (The Haverford School) played a fantastic game.”