Late-season victory helps Plum bounce back from 4-game slide

Oct. 30—Faced with a four-game losing streak and needing a spark, the Plum football team got what it was looking for in a Week 8 game against Hempfield on Oct. 21.

The Mustangs broke open a tie game at halftime with a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter. Those scores proved to be the difference in a 34-21 victory to close out Big East Conference play.

"That first half, we were in the game, but we weren't controlling our emotions very well," Plum coach Matt Morgan said.

"I addressed that at halftime. The guys over the past couple of weeks were a little frustrated over not getting certain calls and things like that. It was stuff we couldn't control. We wanted them to continue to go out and just play football and control the things they could control, like fighting off a block or getting to where they are supposed to be on a particular play. In the second half, all that emotional stuff stopped, and we became us again. That was nice to see."

The four-game losing streak before the Hempfield win included conference setbacks to Gateway, Franklin Regional and Penn-Trafford by a combined 19 points. Those outcomes dropped Plum to 1-3 in the conference standings and eliminated the Mustangs from playoff contention.

"It was frustrating," Morgan said.

"It was a heartbreaker against Gateway, and the next week we weren't able to hold a 21-7 lead at halftime against Franklin Regional. We had their backs against the wall. Against Penn-Trafford, we were a little overwhelmed with the size of their guys, but we still fought to the very end.

"The biggest difference for me, as we moved up to 5A, and what I was most proud of, was us being competitive in those games. Yeah, we wanted to win all three games, but they were good growing experiences for these younger guys. It is unfortunate that the seniors didn't get to experience those games as wins, but three years ago, when those seniors were freshmen, before we moved down to 4A, we lost all of those games by 35 points or more. It speaks volumes to what these seniors have accomplished and what the younger guys are accomplishing."

Plum was scheduled to cap its regular season last Friday with a nonconference game at Indiana. Morgan said he wasn't sure if Plum would schedule a Week 10 game.

In addition to wanting to close out the season with a victory to get to .500 — the team went into the game 4-5 overall — Morgan said he hoped senior running back Eryck Moore-Watkins would get the necessary 151 rushing yards to become Plum's all-time leading rusher.

Moore-Watkins surpassed 3,000 career yards against Hempfield with 192 and a season-best three touchdowns on 29 carries.

The Mustangs totaled 299 yards on the ground as junior quarterback Sean Franzi added 32 yards and a score, and sophomore Darian Nelson collected 66 rushing yards.

Franzi complemented the run game with 124 yards and a touchdown to senior Kaden Thomas on 13 of 22 passing.

Thomas continued his monster season defensively with 18 tackles against Hempfield.

Nelson and junior Jack Tongel added 12 tackles apiece, Nelson recorded a sack, and seniors Bryce Roberson and Keonta Finley picked off passes.

"There was a lot of excitement and emotion for that game," Franzi said of the Hempfield victory.

"It was senior night, and we all wanted to play well for (the seniors). Coming off four losses, we had been batting, but things just didn't go our way. Last week, we did what we needed to do to get the win."

Morgan said the team stayed, for the most part, healthy throughout the season except for the offensive and defensive lines which had their share of players miss time.

"It started with (junior) Max Scheer going down early in the season and then (junior) Devin Curler and (senior) Austin Mitchell got hurt against Gateway," he said.

"But Mitchell did come back from a high-ankle sprain. (Sophomore) Chase Schrock was playing all season with a torn shoulder, but he went out with a knee against Penn-Trafford. We lost a couple of freshman linemen to knees. We were so depleted up front."

Morgan said it will be tough to say goodbye to this year's senior group. But at the same time, he is excited for what returns and the potential for success in 2023 by building on the victories and the close losses in conference play.

"We, as coaches, hope that will propel us in the offseason and show us how close we are and how much harder we have to work to get to our goals," he said.

"We have to take it one step at a time, one game at a time, as cliché as it is, but it's the truth. We have to remember, from our experiences this season, that every conference game matters so much."

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .