By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
As they walked into the locker room at halftime, there was no doubt in the minds of the Mater Dei football players they were going to win the football game.
Despite being out-gained 233-93 in the first 24 minutes, the Seraphs only trailed St. Joe’s of Hammonton, 14-6, in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group II title game Dec. 3 at Rowan University, Glassboro.
“My coaching point at halftime is that St. Joe’s was walking around not knowing what went wrong after controlling the time of possession and now it’s a 14-6 game at half; knowing we’re a second-half team,” coach Shannon Hoadley said. “We were confident, the kids were not down by any stretch.”
The only problem for Mater Dei was, neither were the Wildcats.
“There was never a doubt in my mind we would win,” said running back Qwashin Townsel, who rushed for 234 yards and two touchdowns. “I knew we had to come out and make changes and make sure we completed our assignments. There was a busted coverage and we just had to get it right.”
St. Joe’s did exactly that, as it went on to take a 30-14 win. It was the eighth state title in nine years for the Wildcats, whose streak of seven straight was ended by Mater Dei in last year’s semifinals.
But the defending champion from Middletown could not repeat the magic that allowed it to stun Holy Spirit, 35-34, in the final seconds of this year’s semifinal. St. Joe’s had too much strength and power for Mater Dei to keep up with on both sides of the ball.
Multi-threat quarterback George Pearson threw for 125 yards, with much of that coming on a 44-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Alston at the end of the half. The running game garnered just 64 yards, while St. Joe’s rushed for 441 yards and threw just one time.
“Offensively, we couldn’t really protect well; but we just gotta give them their credit, they’re a great team,” Pearson said. “I thought the game plan was good coming into the game.”
“For the last 10 days in practice we knew they were gonna bring a blitz,” Hoadley said. “We would have to try and pick some match-ups we could do with LC (Pearson) and the offense, but they’re a great, strong team.”
In the end, St. Joe’s wore down a team that was known for its second-half production.
It looked like it might be a long day when Townsel went 56 yards on the Wildcats first play from scrimmage, resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run by Jada Byers (194 yards). St. Joe’s made it 14-0 on Townsel’s second-quarter TD run.
It could have been worse, but the Wildcats lost a fumble on one drive and committed a costly penalty after driving to Mater Dei’s 29 on another.
The Seraphs would have been happy going into the locker room only trailing by 14, but got a huge lift when Pearson threw a perfect strike to Alston, who got by the defense for a TD catch with 27 seconds left.
“George Pearson threw a great ball and I just ran under it,” Alston said. “It was more a better thrown ball than it was a catch.”
The extra point failed, but the Seraphs ran off the field as if they were winning rather than behind, as coaches and players alike yelled “We got them right where we want them. We’re a second-half team!”
Mater Dei tried to ride the momentum with a squib kick to start the second half, which St. Joe’s fumbled, but recovered.
“We were confident knowing they controlled the ball in the first half and it was still 14-6,” Hoadley said. “We made some adjustments. We tried the squib, which we watched on film. We caused the fumble, we just didn’t get it. Hats off to St. Joe’s. They made some big plays in the second half.”
Mater Dei forced a punt that ended up going to the Seraphs 1-yard line, putting Pearson in a big hole. It appeared MD might be pulling off a miracle 99-yard drive behind some huge plays by Kyle Devaney (see sidebar), but it stalled when Devaney’s fourth-down pass from the wildcat formation was batted away by Diego Martinez.
Despite the poor starting point, Pearson took the heat for not engineering a scoring drive.
“Defensively, our defense gave us a big stop in the third quarter,” the quarterback said. “Offensively that’s my fault we didn’t capitalize on it. The offense has to capitalize. This was our fault. We put a lot of pressure on the defense, that’s my fault, I take the blame for it.”
After the pass break-up, St. Joe’s capitalized with a six-play, 54-yard touchdown drive to make it 22-6. The Seraphs next possession ended with an interception at the St. Joe’s 13 on the final play of the third quarter. The Wildcats then embarked on the kind of drive that champions are known for, going 87 yards on 15 plays and chewing up nearly eight minutes of clock before applying the killer touchdown with 4:22 remaining.
“That was the game plan going into that drive,” Townsel said. “Coaches said we need to control this drive, smash them in the mouth and drive down the field and score, and we did that. We were beating ourselves in the beginning. We made a few mistakes, we had to fix them. And we wore them down a lot. They were tired.”
“We knew what type of team we were walking into,” Hoadley said. “You can tell they have a great weight program, which is what we’re bringing into the school, as well. They’re a great program, tribute to them.”
Mater Dei got a late touchdown run from Malik Ingram but it wasn’t enough as St. Joe’s won its 26th state title in its 34th championship game appearance.
“That’s a class program,” Hoadley said. “It’s great football down here (in South Jersey). We knew we were gonna have to play a great game to be in this game with them. Ultimately they made bigger plays than we did.”
“When we came out in the second half, we were expecting to come out strong, but I don’t think we executed,” Alston said. “They wore us down, but our defense still did good. We gave it all we got. We gave it our all.”
Townsel agreed with Alston and threw props Mater Dei’s way, saying, “They were good on defense. They were real solid on defense. Hard hitters.”
But St. Joe’s is the kind of team that hits back even harder.