This is the latest installment of The Banner’s occasional series about the St. Frances Academy football program that has routinely been ranked among the best teams in the country over the last few years.
The football equipment room adjacent to the coaches office at St. Frances is swamped Friday afternoon as players clog the narrow hallway, grabbing their gear and clean uniforms prior to the game against the visiting team from Ontario, Canada — Clarkson North.
Head coach Messay Hailemariam scurries in to help equipment manager Dave Dunn but is surprised to see 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior tight end Chase Wilkens yanking black jerseys from the hangers in the rear.
Moments earlier, Hailemariam had taken a few moments to admire the scene around him, beaming at one wall in his office. The finishing touches are being added to a fresh rendering of the Panthers logo, part of a long-overdue upgrade to the cramped space.
Hailemariam does a bit of everything for the program. He is football and life coach, motivator, mentor, psychologist, psychiatrist, African griot, dorm parent, disciplinarian, chauffeur for his players’ medical appointments and team chaplain.
Hours before his team’s last home game, he’s also playing the role of interior decorator.
“I love the fact that, no matter what the play is, I’m always needed and involved.”— St. Frances tight end Chase Wilkensi
A large whiteboard sits in a cardboard box on the floor, soon to be mounted on the wall opposite the fresh painting. The mucky, sagging folding table that was once adorned with antiquated laptops, toolkits, half-eaten food containers, half-empty Gatorade bottles and paint cans is gone.
In its place is a sturdy new table topped with a football field, the St. Frances logo in the middle, despite the team not actually having a home field.
Maybe someday. There’s not much time to think about that, though. The heart of this program, he knows, is the people.
Star junior cornerback Blake Woodby is there, playing cards. One of the fastest and best defensive backs in the class of 2025, he has over 20 scholarship offers from the best of the best: Miami, Notre Dame, Clemson, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan and USC. He plans to play at Ohio State.
Hailemariam’s mind also turns to the past. He scans the room, mentally marking spaces on the wall where he’ll hang the framed jerseys of the team’s alumni currently playing in the NFL.
St. Frances has four graduates in the league: Tre Avery and Jaelyn Duncan with the Titans, Gary Brightwell with the Giants and Kingsley Jonathan with the Bills.
“That number is going to grow over the next few years,” Hailemariam says.
But seeing Wilkens folded into the back of the equipment closet, doing his part, reminds the coach that it’s not just about big-time recruits.
Hailemariam walks over and hugs his senior tight end, saying, “I love you, man. You’re such a good leader. What made you decide to come in here to help out? I didn’t even see you slide in.”
“This is the busiest time of day with everybody coming down to get their uniforms and stuff,” Wilkens says. “I came to grab my stuff, and Coach Dave looked like he could use some help.”
Wilkens feels he was destined to play football. That became apparent when, a little more than 24 hours after being born, he was bundled up and on the sideline for his brothers’ youth football game, where they were coached by his dad.
Before last season, Wilkens was following in his family’s tradition. His father and older brothers played football at Mount St. Joseph. A quarterback throughout middle school, Wilkens switched to wide receiver once he got to high school. But he didn’t feel as if he was a proper fit in the Gaels’ offense.
A couple of his youth football friends had moved to St. Frances, a nationally ranked program that travels the country to take on the best squads prep football has to offer.
He reached out to Hailemariam over the phone, and the two spoke for over an hour.
“The funny thing is that we didn’t talk about football,” Wilkens said. “We talked about my father’s death from cancer when I was 2 and the struggles my family has been through with addiction. I told him that I felt like I wanted to compete at a higher level, that my goal was to play Division I ball in college. Because, after all of the struggles my mother had been through with my older brothers, I didn’t want her to worry about me.”
“We connected on a pretty powerful level from the first time that we spoke,” Hailemariam said. “He talked about his family situation, how he felt overlooked and wanted a chance to prove that he could play on a higher level.”
But Wilkens had a few things working against him. In addition to his father and brothers being Mount St. Joseph alums, his mother worked for the school president.
He convinced her to meet with Hailemariam but also figured she was just doing it to appease him.
Within 40 minutes of their visit to the small Catholic school in a rugged neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the city detention center, Wilkens’ mom, Renee Riesett-Wilkens, interrupted Hailemariam, who has a tendency to be long-winded when he’s passionate about something.
“I have to be honest,” Riesett-Wilkens told the St. Frances coach. “I just came here to come and had absolutely no intentions of letting my son leave Mt. St. Joe’s. Now I’m sitting here thinking that there’s nothing better that I could do but to let him come here.”
The transition was not an easy one.
Noting his size, hands and blocking ability, the Panthers’ offensive coaching staff moved him to a tight end/H-back/flex position.
Because of his flexibility, physical skills and understanding of an offense after playing quarterback and receiver, they felt they could line him up all over the field, from the backfield to the line to spread wide, and that he had an opportunity to impact every play as a blocker and pass catcher.
Wilkens’ first practices against a unit stockpiled with D-I talent at every defensive position were akin to “drinking water out of a raging fire hydrant,” Hailemariam said.
“Playing against our first-team defense was a wake-up call for me,” Wilkens added. “It’s just an entirely different level of competition. But that’s what I wanted, to be at a place where I could experience the best outcomes for me as a football player. The first time I was assigned to block our All-American defensive end, Da’Shawn Womack, who’s now starring as a freshman at LSU, was not a pleasant experience for me. None of those initial experiences trying to block and get open against those guys were pleasant.”
Hailemariam and the coaching staff took notice when Wilkens, battered and bruised, would come back for more, with more passion and intensity.
“As much as he struggled and as much as we were on him, he did not quit and kept fighting,” Hailemariam said. “He showed up every day with a great attitude, determined to get better.”
Prior to Friday night’s kickoff, the head coach reminds his players in the locker room at Under Armour Stadium in Port Covington that this is the final home game for the seniors.
“It’s Senior Day, and I love where we are as a team right now,” Hailemariam says. “You’re having fun, and we’re out of the storm. You’re also locked in and holding each other accountable. Tonight, I want us to maintain our integrity of the game. We can enjoy it and celebrate it, but we can do it the right way. They talked a whole lot of shit, so on the field when they say something, just say, ‘God bless you’ and ‘Merry Christmas.’ I want our play in between those lines to be all the talking we do tonight. Am I clear?”
A resounding chorus bounces off the brick locker room walls.
“I want dominance. It’s time to unleash, understood?”
On the opening offensive possession, Wilkens tweaks an ankle while blocking on a first-down run that gains 4 yards. He comes limping back to the sideline with a pained look.
As he sits on the trainer’s table to explain what happened before getting his ankles retaped, the crowd erupts when quarterback Michael Van Buren lofts a majestic 40-yard spiral toward the goal line.
Junior wide receiver Jeremiah Koger, who was excited earlier in the afternoon when talking about his upcoming recruiting visit to Penn State on Saturday morning, is covered by two defensive backs. Koger goes airborne, and one of the defenders gets a hand on the ball, but Koger grabs it out of his hand while in midair to score an astonishing touchdown.
It’s Koger’s fourth catch over the last three games. All of them have gone for scores of 35 yards or more.
A few minutes later, while Wilkens jumps up and down and jogs back and forth on the sideline, the Panthers’ offense strikes again when a Nicholas Harris 5-yard touchdown run puts them ahead 14-0 with 6:14 left in the first quarter.
Wilkens returns to the game with a slight limp and, though his ankle is clearly bothering him, plays admirably. He lines up all over the field, and his biggest contribution to tonight’s 47-6 win comes as a run blocker, assisting the offensive line in opening holes for the talented running backs.
“Chase’s growth over the last two years has been tremendous,” Panthers tight ends coach Dionte Holland says. “He’s a mentor to all of the younger guys. He’s the youngest child in his family so he enjoys playing the role of a big brother.”
Wilkens catches only one pass against Clarkson North for a 25-yard gain, but his value to the team is much more than that.
The week prior, against National Christian Academy, he hauled in a Van Buren pass and rumbled over and through the secondary for a 75-yard score.
“I have to block big, fast, 260-pound defensive ends, and I have to beat some really strong linebackers and fast defensive backs when I run my routes,” Wilkens said. “I love the fact that, no matter what the play is, I’m always needed and involved.”
Wilkens, who’s already achieved his dream of getting a scholarship to ease the burden on his mother, is certain he’ll get emotional on National Signing Day, Dec. 20, when he signs his letter of intent with Monmouth. That also happens to be his father’s birthday.
“That’s going to be a very heartfelt moment for me and my family,” Wilkens said. “I came here with some clear goals in focus, and some people doubted that I could play at this level. I’m excited for what the future holds both in and out of the classroom.”
He plans on majoring in real estate and business.
“Football is his passion,” Riesett-Wilkens said as she fought back tears sitting in the chilly stands. “He told me a long time ago that he didn’t want me to have to pay for his college. Like most families, we’ve had our struggles, but he’s persevered and I’m very proud of him.”
There’s one more goal on the vision board for Wilkens and his St. Frances coaches and teammates. Friday at 7 p.m., the Panthers (5-5) take on national powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, to close out what some might consider a disappointing season.
Last season, the Panthers were undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country before losing their last game to IMG 27-16 and finishing the year 9-1.
“Last year we had an incredible core of players and just missed out on competing for the national championship,” Wilkens said. “This year, we faced some adverse situations after graduating so many talented seniors. We were a young squad to start out this year, and we had some unfortunate injuries early on that set us back. But the young guys have now become acclimated and, over the past four games, we’re back at a level where we feel like we can match up against anybody.
“We’re back to playing St. Frances football, which is a physical, tough brand of ball,” he continued. “You can knock us down, but we’re going to keep getting up, fighting for what’s ours. We’ve had this IMG game circled on the calendar for a year. We’re ready to go down there and leave Florida with this win, which would make everything we’ve been through this year worth it.”