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Friday night lights

On the move: George Washington junior Nigel Sealey rushed 19 times for 69 yards and a score against Northeast High on Friday night. Washington defeated Northeast, 14–12. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

For Ron Cohen and George Hubbard, Friday night’s football result made for the happiest of birthdays.

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The longtime George Washington head football coach and his junior linebacker got to walk off Northeast’s home field with a 14–12 hard-fought victory over the Vikings, but not before a few heart palpitations first.

Northeast drove 90 yards on 11 plays late in the fourth quarter, with senior quarterback Asa Manley connecting with senior wide receiver Travon Williams five times for 86 yards before Manley found the end zone himself on a four-yard TD run, bringing the Vikings within 14–12 with 2:30 to go.

All that stood between a tie ballgame was the two-point conversion.

Enter Hubbard.

Hubbard, all 5 feet 7 and 160 pounds of him, was the first of several Eagles players to greet Manley on his attempted scamper to the end zone, stuffing the quarterback before he could find pay dirt and preserving the precious two-point lead. Washington turned the ball over on downs, surrendering the ball back to Northeast on its own 43 with 1:29 to go.

But the Vikings didn’t go far, and on fourth and four from the 49, it was Hubbard again who got into the Northeast backfield and sacked Manley to end the game.

Mission accomplished. Birthdays celebrated.

“I told my team that before that two-point conversion, I said ‘team over me,’ and you’ve got to be willing to die for this play,” Hubbard said. “I was able to get into the backfield and help my team out. I needed to do it for them. I’m a team player. I’d do anything for them, and I always put myself behind the team. I’m willing to die for this team.”

And on the game-ending sack?

“Nothing was stopping me from getting to that quarterback,” he said with a smile.

For Washington, it was another step in the right direction. After being blown out by Frankford in last year’s Public League championship game (giving Cohen his first overall losing season in 29 years at the school), the Eagles opened the 2014 season with a hard-fought loss against Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

But things have gone swimmingly since, with the Eagles reeling off three straight wins: a 15–6 win over Catholic League opponent Cardinal O’Hara, a 42–0 blowout victory over Roxborough to open division play and capped off by Friday night’s nailbiter. The Eagles are now 3–1 overall and 2–0 in the Pub’s Independence Division; meanwhile Northeast, a team that entered 2014 with lofty expectations but has been beset by bad luck and the injury bug, fell to 0–4, including an 0–2 mark in the division.

“George and I, we texted back and forth and said how good of a birthday present it would be for both of us to win this game,” said Cohen, who texts with his players despite just ringing in his 71st birthday. “I can’t say enough about the kids, especially George. He works his tail off … nobody works harder than he does, on and off the field. He’s got a 3.8 GPA and is just a workaholic. He worked out real hard over the summer with us, and when we’d call it a day, he’d go work out more. If we had more George Hubbards around us, the country would be in much better shape.”

It wasn’t the prettiest win for Washington, as the Eagles were bit by the turnover bug in this one, making it closer than it probably should have been. But they never broke when they bent, and through four games the team is succeeding where Cohen had hoped they would heading into the season: on defense and running the football.

“We changed our philosophy back to the GW of old, with a good, strong defense and having success running the ball,” Cohen said.

Defense has certainly not been an issue, as the Eagles, led by top college recruit Shareef Miller on the defensive line, have allowed under 11 points per game thus far. Miller, a terrifying, explosive defensive end who transferred from Frankford, often draws double teams, which frees up guys like Hubbard to make plays.

“Shareef brings so much to the table,” Hubbard said. “He’s the heart and soul of this team.”

Washington’s backfield features a one-two punch of junior Nigel Sealey and senior Bruce Smalley. Against Northeast, Sealey rushed 19 times for 69 yards and a score, while Smalley returned from a two-game injury absence to add 48 of his own. They’ve totaled 422 yards and five scores between them, with 312 of those yards and four TDs coming from Sealey, the quicker finesse back to Hubbard’s power game.

“Bruce and I are a good one-two,” said Sealey, also a member of the defensive backfield. “He’s stronger, but I think my speed is a bit better than his. This was a nice win for our team. The defense was so motivated to make the stop and get the victory. As far as the running game goes, it’s a matter of trusting our line and trusting in the team.”

The Eagles have appeared more motivated from the jump than in the last two seasons, and Cohen admitted that had something to do with selfish egos, a problem he vowed to nip in the bud. So far, so good.

“We all know what we want and where we want to be,” said Hubbard, who said Washington has its sights set on a Public League title and a trip to the state playoffs. “This team, and it’s not just me, is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. I believe in these guys. We’re going to execute. Every game is a building block, and we’d do anything to get to where we’re going.”

After the game, Cohen stressed to his team that while proud of their effort, Washington is far from a complete team. There’s work yet to be done, but for the rest of the weekend, the legendary coach, his feisty, gritty linebacker and the rest of the team could breathe easy, as the Eagles look very much like one of the teams to beat in the Public League.

“I’m really happy with the kids,” Cohen said. “Hopefully, a win like this brings us closer together. They came through and definitely came up big. It’s good for our progression going forward. In my mind, we’re nowhere where we want to be, but I know we’ll get better and I think we’ll be a very good football team.”

As for the stressful nature of the win on Cohen’s birthday?

“I’m getting too old for this, for it to come down to the very end like that,” he said with a laugh. “But as long as we score at least one more point than the other team, that’s all we can ask for.” ••

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