YOUNGSTOWN - Riding all the momentum they could, the East Panthers jumped out to an 18-0 lead against the Ursuline Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon.
It seemed the Panthers would christen the first game on Jack Antonucci Field at the new Judge William Rayen Stadium with a victory over the crosstown rival Ursuline Irish.
The sold-out crowd of 5,000, along with many onlookers peering through the metal bars surrounding the field, were stunned and excited at the early score - depending on your rooting interest.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Ursuline’s Jermaine Williams (24) stiff-arms East’s Jason Fonseca, left, and rushes for big yardage down to the near goal line to set up an Ursuline touchdown in the third quarter. The Fighting Irish won, 41-24.
Ursuline went into the locker room at halftime having committed two interceptions, a pair of holding penalties that negated two touchdowns and many other mistakes.
Funny thing about momentum, however, is that it sometimes takes one play to change it.
Jermaine Williams' 86-yard punt return for a touchdown not only gave Ursuline its first score with 6:21 left in the third quarter, but the momentum for good en route to a 41-24 victory. Ursuline went on to score 34 unanswered points.
"They took it to us pretty good," Ursuline coach Larry Kempe said. "I told our kids at halftime what's killing us is us. Turnovers, missed tackles. We had two long touchdown runs called back on penalties. That's the stuff that kills you. It was us more than anybody else.
"I think that was a great individual effort on Jermaine Williams' part. He was wrapped up about two times and broke them all. Jermaine fought hard today with the rest of the guys."
Quarterback Chris Durkin was flustered the first half, but had two runs of more than 10 yards before intermission. His last two runs prior to halftime got him out of negative yardage for the half.
"Both were passes and I saw open lanes both times, so I just took off running," Durkin said.
Durkin had 88 of his 104 yards rushing in the second half, including a 61-yard touchdown run.
"What we want to do with Chris is take what's there," Kempe said. "In the first half, he forced some balls. He's a big boy and he runs well. Take that and go get it. In the second half, he understood what we were trying to tell him to do."
The temperature was in the mid to upper 80s Saturday afternoon, but heat on the field was even higher - something that wore on both teams as the 3-hour game went along.
Ursuline's Tramain Thigpen, who had 99 yards rushing on 12 carries and three touchdowns, said Kempe's endurance training throughout the preseason prepared the Irish for today's game and eventual comeback.
"We condition every day and I knew they were going down in the second quarter, but we were going down too," Thigpen said. "I told my team we can't go down like them because they were up 18-0. We have to overcome it and we have to get back in the game. That's what we did.
"... Sometimes we don't like how hard he pushes, but at the end of the day it pays off and gets us to where we want to be."
East wasn't where it wanted to be in the second half as it was held to 30 yards rushing, a far cry from 113 yards before intermission. East quarterback Jamir Humphrey, who was 8 of 14 for 126 yards and connected on two scores to James Merchant, paced the Panthers.
Derrick Tensley, who led East with 17 carries for 106 yards, was held to 28 yards in the second half. Tensley, however, had a 90-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter for East's only score after intermission.
Nevertheless, the first half was a display of what East is capable of this season.
"Nobody believed we were going to beat Ursuline but us," East coach Jim Vivo said. "I expected that. I watched them on film. We have a lot of respect for them, but they replaced a lot of guys up front and they have some great players. We have just as many athletes. We just have to be able to finish and staying together. That's something that takes a lot of time.
"Unfortunately, we learned that lesson today."
For Kempe, who fought to hold back the tears following his first win as Ursuline's coach, gave his son, Paul, who was Ursuline's starting quarterback during the Irish's Division V Championship run in 2010, a vigorous hug after Saturday's game.
"I'm trying not to cry. I'll do that privately," Kempe said. "It's a good day for us in the household and for Youngstown Ursuline football. That's the key."