Driven Griffins

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Tahir Cruse and Ernest Holland have emerged as stars for their Hawthorne-based squad.

Staff Photo by Joseph Myers

Because they and their teammates from The Academy at Palumbo, 1100 Catharine St., tallied only four victories in the program’s first two seasons, one could probably have found a few reasons for Tahir Cruse and Ernest Holland to feel dejected when this year’s club began 1–3 — all three ending in a shutout. Rather than regarding the campaign as another long provider of frustration, the grateful Griffins players chose to believe more momentum would materialize. On Friday, the stars helped their Hawthorne location to grab its third-consecutive triumph, a 36–8 whooping of Roxborough.

“We came on the field with the mindset that we were going to be doing our thing,” Holland, a junior middle linebacker, said of the win at the South Philadelphia supersite. “That’s who we are now — a team that knows how to play four hard quarters of football.”

The West Philly poduct and his peers crept above .500 for the initial time in school history in dumping yet another divisional foe. The Griffins have won four out of five league duels and have yielded only 24 points in the contests, an impressive stat that especially reflects the defense’s trust in what coach Scott Pitzner is preaching.

“We’ve had a pretty good year,” the former East Passyunk Crossing resident said ahead of the tilt of his group, which contains, through a co-op agreement, students from Engineering and Science and The Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. “Programs take time to grow, and I can say I am very proud of our progress.”

Pitzner, whose coaching resume also includes head duties at South Philadelphia High School, has overseen Palumbo’s maturation since the beginning and therefore has won the admiration of his charges, notably Cruse.

“He’s all about positivity and always has been,” the senior running back and strong safety said of his coach. “That’s what you want when you’re trying to give your best.”

Another West Philly dweller, Cruse made school history Sept. 30, rushing for 225 yards in a 24–8 road decision over Strawberry Mansion. Oct. 7’s 68–0 annihilation of Edison, also as visitors, saw him rack up over 100 yards in the first quarter before Pitzner pulled his starter from the onslaught. As Friday’s game began, Cruse and his mates, knowing they had played greedy guests the previous two weeks, sought to keep their 5–1 adversaries from feasting on some road cooking.

After a fruitless opening drive, Cruse showed why Pitzner believes the speedy ball carrier will eclipse 1,000 yards, darting for nine- and 10-yard pickups before busting loose for a 34-yard score. Only moments later, Holland showed his prowess, too, recovering a fumble and breaking the plane to give the hosts a 14–0 edge.

“Those were such big confidence boosters,” Holland said. “Getting touchdowns on both sides of the ball is big no matter who you’re playing.”

The cushion became 22 points when sophomore running back Demetrius Williams scored on a carry and senior wide receiver Kenneth Bennett snared a conversion try.

“The energy in the first half was incredible,” Pitzner said. “That was one worth remembering for a long time.”

No matter how confident the Griffins had become in building a three-score lead, their coaches instructed them to act as if they were entering the third quarter locked in a scoreless matchup. Roxborough, therefore, put a few more thoughts in their heads by returning the frame’s first kickoff for a touchdown. Sandwiched between two unsuccessful series, Holland recovered a fumble, and the local club would soon after force its fourth turnover of the gorgeous afternoon off a botched punt snap. Happy to help the opposition to look forward to the ride home, Bennett caught a fourth-down scoring heave from sophomore quarterback Donovan Ragsdale, with a two-point conversion restoring the gulf between the squads to 22 points.

“We’ve definitely gained a lot of belief these last few games,” Holland said as fans waited to congratulate him for his frustration-inducing efforts. “It’s like we knew at the beginning of the season that we had to form another kind of family and bond.”

Like loving relatives, the offense gelled in the fourth quarter, with Cruse, Williams, and ultimately Bennett orchestrating a fifth touchdown celebration to complete the scoring. Yet another turnover allowed the Griffins to run down the clock and set up a quick congratulatory session between Pitzner and his troops.

“We’re finally hitting our stride,” he said to enthusiastic nods from the four dozen teenagers. “You’re doing what we’re asking for you to do. You’re executing, executing, executing. Let’s keep it up!”

“We definitely can and look forward to doing it,” Cruse said of the coach’s victory speech. “We’re a very well-prepared team, and at this time of year, when so many teams have a lot to play for, being prepared is what can be the difference between winning and losing.”

The Griffins will look to stay red hot tomorrow at 3 when they welcome Kensington to the supersite, 10th and Bigler streets. SPR

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124.