CANTON, OHIO – With a roster of Division I recruits, St. Frances Academy’s football team has been long on talent the last several seasons. In its season opener Saturday evening, the Panthers displayed some grit.

Top-ranked St. Frances defeated Illinois’ East St. Louis, 20-13, in the finale of the Freedom Bowl at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

Junior quarterback Mike Van Buren’s 59-yard pass to senior Mehki Workman with 1:27 left in regulation was the difference for the Panthers (1-0 overall), playing the first of seven road games - totaling approximately 8,000 miles - this season.

The East Baltimore school, ranked No. 3 nationally by MaxPreps and No. 6 SBLive Sports, hopes its cross country trek ends with a claim to the mythical national championship.

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The Panthers’ aspirations nearly took a major blow in the shadow of Pro Football’s Hall of Fame Saturday night.

“Sometimes in life you rather be lucky than good,” said St. Frances coach Messay Hailemariam. “You have to be prepared for adversity. Sometimes it’s not talent, it’s chemistry.”

East St. Louis (0-1), the top-ranked team among large schools in the St. Louis metro area, grabbed a 13-12 lead on quarterback Robert Battle’s nine-yard touchdown run late in the third. The drive was setup by a St. Frances interception.

The Flyers were poised to add to the lead in the fourth, reaching the Panthers’ 19 yard line with 2:21 left in regulation. St. Frances senior defensive end Dashawn Womack came up with a sack, and East St. Louis false started on third down.

The Flyers went backwards again, losing 17 yards on a bad snap out of the shotgun formation. Another bad snap, this one on a fourth down punt attempt, resulted in St. Frances getting possession at its own 41.

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On the next play, Van Buren, who threw two interceptions Saturday, went downfield to Workman, who caught the ball around the East St. Louis’ 25. The Franklin transfer made a cut toward the hash mark and two East St. Louis defenders ran into each other.

Workman sprinted to the end zone for the winning score, and Van Buren ran in the two-point conversion.

Hailemariam was pleased to see Van Buren, the area’s top junior, rebound in a critical moment.

“He was struggling early,” said Hailemariam. “The best indicator of a competitor is when things aren’t going their way and still find a way to make a play.”

East St. Louis reached St. Frances’ 15 in the final seconds, but was stopped on fourth down, and the Panthers were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.

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Hailemariam lauded his defense, including Isaiah Neal, Womack, Sam Greene and Brian Simms. Senior defensive linemen Donovan Dyson had a sack during East St. Louis’ final drive.

It was St. Frances’ ninth straight victory, dating back to last season, and the first decided by a touchdown or less since Week 10 of the 2016 season when the Panthers defeated Archbishop Spalding, 32-29. The Panthers had won 49 games by double-digits before Saturday.

“Take nothing away from East St. Louis. They have a lot of talent,” said Hailemariam.

St. Frances, which lost at Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in the 2022 opener, trailed 7-0 on Battle’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Larevious Woods. The Flyers’ scoring drive was initiated by a fumble from Panthers senior running back Durell Robinson.

St. Frances took advantage of a bad punt snap to get on the board before halftime. Junior running back Darrion Smith got into the end zone from a yard out on fourth down, capping a four-play 9-yard series.

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The Panthers gained their first lead in the third quarter as Van Buren connected with Ryan Manning, a University of Maryland commit, for 28 yards with 9:03 left. Later in the quarter, Van Buren was intercepted by Antwon Hayden, leading to Battle’s scamper to the pylon.

St. Frances is now off to Texas where it will play public school powerhouse DeSoto in the Interstate 20 Classic, Saturday in Fort Worth.

“Everybody is going to give us their best shot,” said Hailemariam. “We’re playing tough games on the road every week so we have to play near perfect. We found a way to win tonight and that builds character.”