When Ken Pope's players talk, he listens.
The South Park coach took his player's advice during halftime of Thursday's Harvard Cup championship, and the adjustments helped his team defeat defending champion Hutch-Tech, 26-14. The 99th annual classic was played on a snow-covered and muddy field in freezing temperatures in All High Stadium.
"I listen to them. They know what they're talking about," said Pope, who ended his fourth year with his first cup. "There were a couple of adjustments that we made at halftime. Our defensive ends were playing in too tight, which was allowing (Hutch-Tech) to get around the corner. We just had them move slightly, and we shut them out. It's such a simple thing, and we teach that every day in practice. But in the excitement of the game, they just forgot."
Hutch-Tech moved the ball in the first half, scoring a pair of rushing touchdowns. But after defensive ends Tyrone Bruno and Leroy Scott moved out one-half step, the Engineers were held without a first down in the second half.
"His ends came down on our inside stuff, and we couldn't block it," said Hutch-Tech coach Bill Boyle, who was coaching his last game. "There's no doubt about it. We talked about a couple different ways to block their ends, especially 84 (Scott)."
Hutch-Tech also couldn't handle junior running back James Henley, who put on a show before an estimated crowd of 3,500. He had a pair of highlight-reel touchdown runs, an interception late in the game and several tackles that made the mud fly. He finished with 204 yards on 24 carries to end the season with 1,117 yards.
Hutch-Tech, whose offense averaged a league-high 24.4 points per game, grabbed the early lead after a fumble gave it the ball at the South Park 47. Six plays later, senior Farrod Muhammad scored on a 3-yard run off tackle. South Park tied it, 8-8, when Henley bounced to the left side and raced 47 yards. They were the first points Hutch-Tech had given up in six games.
Hutch-Tech regained the lead, 14-8, on its first possession of the second quarter when Muhammad scored on a 17-yard draw to cap an eight-play drive. But the lead wouldn't last. South Park's Randy Calloway took the ensuing kickoff 80 yards up the middle for a 14-14 tie. It was Calloway's fourth TD of the season and first on special teams.
"When I caught the ball I just looked straight ahead. I saw the good blocks by my players, and I did a little cutback, and then all I saw was the end zone," Calloway said, crediting Josh Mattia and Justin Bartlomiejczak with key blocks.
Bartlomiejczak also gained 80 yards on four rushes.
South Park took the lead for good, 20-14, with 1:29 left in the third quarter when Henley shook off several tacklers on a 55-yard run for his second TD.
South Park made it a two-touchdown margin in the fourth quarter when Claude Scott caught a 15-yard TD pass from Jason Truman.
"This feels good to me," Henley said. "This is my first championship ever in all my years of playing football. We weren't going to quit, and we knew with a two-touchdown edge the game would be ours."
Henley intercepted a pass at midfield on Hutch-Tech's last possession, and the Sparks were able to run out the clock to win their first Harvard Cup since 1996. It was the ninth cup in their history.
"We played our hearts out, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be," said Muhammad, who finished with 91 yards and 952 for the season.
Hutch-Tech ended the season 9-2, with both losses coming to South Park. The Sparks also finished 9-2.
The win for Pope came against his alma mater. He graduated from Tech in 1969.
"I have a lot of respect for coach Boyle," Pope said. "He's got a good program over there. Secondly, I'm an alumnus of Hutch-Tech, so it's too bad we had to beat them. But I wanted that cup."
South Park won a computer championship tournament of the greatest Harvard Cup teams of all time. The 1993 Sparks beat the 1959 Bennett team, 21-15. The mythical game was broadcast Thursday on WJJL-AM