Manning Field was not the place to be on Thursday night.
It was raw, chilly, and raining heavily off and on. The sun hadn’t shown itself for most of the day. If you didn’t have a reason to be outside, it was the perfect night to hole up inside and stay warm.
But if you stayed in Thursday night, you missed the KIPP football team celebrate its first-ever senior night with a 24-16 win over Burke in what coach Jim Rabbitt called “the best game (they’ve) played all year.”
The game, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t mean much. Neither team is winning any championships this season. The playoffs, save for the state semifinals and Super Bowls, are all said and done, and neither Burke nor KIPP had made the cut. The few fans who braved the nasty weather were huddled under umbrellas or had taken shelter under awnings. The ball was so wet that at first, more snaps landed on the ground than in the quarterback’s hands.
But did any of that matter to either team? It sure didn’t look like it. And for KIPP, at least, the tone was set at the top. As little as the game meant in terms of standings and seedings, anyone watching could tell how much it meant to the players and coaches on the field.
Rabbitt and his team of coaches directed and guided their team with contagious energy that clearly translated to the players. Despite absorbing some tough losses and hitting bumps in the road along the way, this game seemed to mean as much to the Panthers players and coaches as their very first.
Prior to Thursday, KIPP hadn’t played a game at Manning Field since Oct. 14. The Panthers are playing fifth fiddle to the four other teams in Lynn, all of whom made the tournament, and all of whom earned at least one home game in the playoffs. With three Lynn teams undefeated heading into last week’s North finals, it’s easy to see how KIPP’s successful first season was overshadowed. But Thursday night was an opportunity to show Lynn just how much the Panthers have improved over just nine games this season.
The play that serves as a microcosm of that improvement was the final one of the first half. Quarterback Kymani Morrison, who has been the backbone and one of the leaders of the young team, found Andrew Puati with a 30-yard touchdown pass that put KIPP up 16-8 after a two-point conversion.
Rabbitt said that Morrison was “a little unsure of himself” airing it out on a cold and wet night.
That uncertainty was well-founded. The Panthers’ first offensive drive didn’t start well; after making a huge defensive stop on Burke’s first drive, KIPP nearly handed the Bulldogs the lead twice. Morrison scampered out of his own end zone to avoid a safety on the first play, using some nifty moves to gain some ground. He wasn’t as fortunate on the second play, as the snap again skipped away and this time, Burke wouldn’t let Morrison get out of the end zone. Luckily for KIPP, a Burke penalty negated the safety, and KIPP got a new slate.
And they made the most of it, going 99 yards during a long drive that culminated in the game’s first touchdown.
Burke responded, setting the stage for Morrison’s touchdown pass.
Rabbitt said he couldn’t have scripted it better, and that Morrison’s throw was “right on the money.”
There were several moments in Thursday night’s game that gave you the feeling that the Panthers are going to be okay. It didn’t matter to the Panthers that they were playing in front of a small audience, or that the weather was wet and miserable. It was their senior night, and they were going to leave it all on the field. You get the sense that these kids are just happy to have a place to play and a team to call their own, and that’s an awesome attitude that is invaluable when it comes to building the foundation of the program. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Playing for the love of the game, for your teammates, for your coaches and for your own pride. Nothing is more authentic than that.
Rabbitt and his group of coaches deserve a lot of credit. The three or four times I’ve seen Rabbitt coach, I could feel the fire and intensity and passion he feels for the sport and the program. To finish your first season with a couple of wins under your belt is no small feat. Congratulations to KIPP on a successful inaugural season, and good luck in its first Thanksgiving showdown in Milford.