NEWTOWN SQUARE — Episcopal Academy's 2013 season will be a quest to build off its 2012 success.
In the first half of Friday's season-opener, the Churchmen carved up Father Judge with the ease and precision that characterized their Inter-Ac Championship campaign. When that abandoned them in the second half, they had at least enough resilience built up in last year's perfect season to survive.
It took a desperation defensive stand deep in the fourth quarter to stem the tide of 19 unanswered points by Judge as Episcopal escaped with a 30-22 nonleague win.
It wasn't pretty, and it certainly wasn't the kind of anxious final moments Todd Fairlie and his staff expected when his team trotted into halftime with a 30-3 lead. But when the Crusaders' final march was stalled at the Churchmen 43 thanks to four straight incompletions, it proved just enough to get the job done.
"Coach said it best, that was a big-time gut-check,' defensive end/tight end Evan Butts said. "When the going gets tough, we have to get tougher. There were numerous times where they scored on us in that second half, and we needed a big stop there, and we were able to do that. That says a lot about this team early on.'
It seemed improbable at halftime that the game would come to this, thanks to a marvelous debut performance by Churchmen quarterback Zach Whayland. He was 9-for-13 in his first half as a starter with a pair of touchdowns — a 75-yard strike on a clinical wheel rout with Butts and a 53-yard bomb to Christian Feliziani.
The nerves left the junior quickly as he orchestrated three scoring drives in the game's first 24 minutes.
"It was awesome,' Whayland said. "We came out firing. Everything was working well. ... The first drive, a little bit (of jitters). But I felt ready for it, I felt prepared.'
"I said it in preseason, the kid has a cannon,' Butts said. "You saw that when he threw the deep ball numerous times for touchdowns. He needs more experience. Obviously he threw some balls that were questionable. I've said it before: He's a perfect replacement for (2012 Daily Times Player of the Year) Adam (Strouss). He can't do some of the things that Adam did, but he makes up for it in some areas.'
Whayland got plenty of help early. Cody Russell blocked a punt on Judge's first series, putting the Churchmen in business for Anthony Feliziani's 3-yard dive into the end zone.
When Judge got on the board with a field goal in the second quarter, Terrell Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards straight up the gut without a Crusader touching him.
Whayland hit Butts and Feliziani for their scoring strikes within two minutes in the second quarter, and it appeared the rout was on. But the Crusaders had other ideas.
"Coach gave us a speech that we were kind of playing a little soft in the first half,' Judge quarterback Zach Carroll said. "I didn't play well at all. We came out at half with a little fire, a little chip on our shoulder, and I guess we started making plays.'
The key figures were Carroll and Marquis Seamon. After being bottled up to the tune of 27 yards on eight first-half carries, Seamon ran for 104 in the first five minutes of the third quarter, including a 44-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 30-9.
Whayland made a rare mistake two series later, his pass across the middle going off a receiver's hands for his second such interception of the night, this one taken back 55 yards for a score by Yee Dee Thaenrat.
While the Judge offense heated up, EA's shut down. The Churchmen finished with just 53 yards rushing on 25 carries, unable to chew up clock. Whayland finished with 216 yards through the air, connecting with nine different receivers. But that wasn't enough to keep Judge at bay.
On consecutive drives, Carroll moved his team with connections to Clayton Rush for 69 yards, Prince Smith for 36 and then found Arren Monteleone on a crossing pattern for a 14-yard score with 3:17 left to cut it to a one-score game.
They got the ball back in good field position after another EA three-and-out and, thanks to the absence of Terrell Smith with what he termed a mild upper-body injury, a poor punt. After a pair of third downs, first thanks to Carroll and Prince Smith through the air than Carroll with his legs, they had a first down at the EA 43. But Carroll then misfired on four straight passes, three of them hitting his receivers squarely in the chest.
The Churchmen did enough to survive the test. But in doing so, they learned just what their reputation would earn for them this season: Nothing.
"I'm not going to say we didn't work hard, but from what the coach said, it was lack of focus sort of,' Butts said. "We had some missed assignments, had some fatigue maybe. But it's the first game of the season. We expect that a little bit. Giving up 19 unanswered points, though, that can't happen again.'