Winning family tradition

BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

The annual Far Northeast Thanksgiving Day clash between Archbishop Ryan and George Washington high schools was less a football game than a family reunion.

That’s not to say the contest didn’t feature all the running, hitting and occasional chirping typical of a neighborhood rivalry. But Ryan’s 35-7 victory seemed almost a sidelight to the social atmosphere surrounding it.

Some 22 members of senior A.J. McAleer’s family spanning at least three generations witnessed the game at Washington’s Mickey Young Stadium. Another senior, Joe Cannon, had another six relatives there.

“We probably filled a whole section” of the grandstand, McAleer said.

The longtime teammates clearly made their many backers proud as Cannon reeled in three touchdown passes from Matt Romano and McAleer spearheaded a defense that blanked the hosts. Washington’s only points came on a fumble return against Ryan’s reserve offense with less than a minute left in the game.

“This is a big rivalry at the McAleer house, [so] it’s pretty awesome,” McAleer said.

It’s always been a split household to be sure. McAleer’s mom, 

Maureen, graduated from Washington, as did one of McAleer’s uncles, Sean, who was a standout linebacker for the Eagles in the mid-1980s. But another uncle, Gene, starred at the same position for Ryan in the early ’90s. Gene played so well for the Raiders that he will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame next spring.

“My uncle Gene, he played for Ryan. He texted me today and said, ‘Get this win so we can make fun of Sean at the Thanksgiving table.’ So that’s what I did,” A.J. said following the big victory.

The game was bittersweet in a sense for the senior. In the buildup, he often thought of his late father, Andrew, who died when A.J. was a young boy.

“The weird thing is I had a dream about him last night,” McAleer said. “He was on my mind a little more than usual. I was just thinking that this was my last game at Ryan and he would’ve liked to see me play.”

“A.J.’s been through some tough things personally and he’s overcome them,” Ryan coach Frank McArdle said. “His family has done a phenomenal job with him. He’s just a special kid and mature beyond his years.”

The McAleers weren’t alone in channeling the family spirit. Cannon’s dad, sister, aunt, uncle and two cousins all saw him reel in touchdown passes of 54, eight and four yards. He had just two touchdown catches in the Raiders’ 11 prior games. 

Schematically, things just fell into place for him.

“It felt good. I guess we had the coverage from the D-backs and I’ve got to give credit to my coach for calling the right plays and letting me get the touchdowns,” Cannon said. “It’s good to go out with a bang.”

“His two [prior] touchdowns were early in the season, so teams started paying more attention to him. He had a lot of big catches for us this year, but in the red zone, teams were aware of him,” McArdle said. “Today, I think we were able to formation them a bit and sneak some things by them. And he did a great job making the plays.”

Romano, the junior signal-caller, opened the scoring with a one-yard sneak on the first possession for Ryan (8-4). Cannon’s 54-yard touchdown catch made it 14-0 later in the first quarter.

Running back Jaye McNeil scored on a five-yard run late in the second quarter to make it 21-0. McNeil finished the day with 102 yards on 16 carries.

Washington (3-9) was moving the ball in Ryan territory just before intermission, but fumbled. The Raiders fell on the football at their own 21 with 57 seconds on the clock.

Romano needed just 34 seconds and one timeout to direct a 79-yard touchdown drive in which he completed four passes and spiked the ball twice to stop the clock. 

Cannon caught his second touchdown, an eight-yarder, to make it 28-0 by halftime.

Cannon’s four-yard touchdown catch on the opening possession of the third quarter triggered the mercy rule. Romano went 10-for-14 passing for 220 yards and the three touchdowns.

On the defensive side, Mike Minniti and Bill Palmer each recorded an interception for the Raiders.

Washington’s Nigel Sealey scooped up a Raiders fumble and raced 60 yards for the Eagles’ lone touchdown with 33 second left in the game. The final score left Ryan leading the all-time series 29-9-1.

McAleer and Cannon were among a dozen seniors for Ryan, including eight who came through the Calvary Athletic Association program.

“I love them all. They’re all my best friends,” McAleer said. “We didn’t get the championship, but it was still a good year.”

Ryan lost to Archbishop Wood in the Philadelphia Catholic League’s Class AAA championship game.

“I think next year, if our guys work in the offseason, we can get like [Wood],” Cannon said.

“We’ll keep getting the neighborhood players and see what we can do,” McAleer said. ••

BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES
Off to the races: George Washington High School senior Nigel Sealey finds running room Thanksgiving morning. Sealey scored Washington’s only touchdown in a 35-7 loss to Archbishop Ryan. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES