EAST RUTHERFORD — Back in August — on paper, anyway — St. Joseph looked to have perhaps the best team in South Jersey and a 12-0 record and another state championship seemed like all but a foregone conclusion. But ask any coach and they'll tell you, winning championships is never easy, especially when the storied Navy and gold of Holy Spirit is staring back at you from the other sideline.
The top-seeded Wildcats pulled away late to beat No. 2 Holy Spirit, 41-22, on Friday night at MetLife Stadium in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 2 title game, but it was a dogfight right up until the final whistle, and St. Joseph earned another title under legendary coach Paul Sacco the hard way — by grinding it out on the line of scrimmage and finding ways to get the ball into the hands of its most dynamic playmaker, junior running back Jada Byers.
The game had all kinds of twists and turns, big plays on both sides, and the Spartans continually answering the bell and matching the Wildcats score-for-score until starting quarterback Ryan Yost, a senior, was lost to a broken collarbone on a sack by Keshon Griffin late in the third quarter.
Holy Spirit (8-4) trailed just 14-6 late in the first half before sophomore running back Ahmad Ross broke free for a 78-yard touchdown run up the middle that put St. Joseph (10-2) up 20-6. But the Spartans continued to answer back. Linebacker Azim Baker-Coley scooped up a fumble on St. Joseph's first play from scrimmage in the second half, setting up Yost's 4-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Brown, then Yost hit Alvaro Lora on a slant pattern for the two-point conversion to pull Spirit within 20-14. But for every answer Holy Spirit had, St. Joseph countered with Byers. Two possessions later, sophomore quarterback Jayden Shertel hit Byers in stride for a 60-yard score that put the Wildcats up 26-14. Spirit got as close as 26-22 on its next possession when Brown turned a quick out pass into a 72-yard touchdown up the right sideline, but just as quickly it was 34-22 as Byers ripped off a long run on the next possession to set up his own 36-yard score and two-point conversion.
"It feels great. This is coach Sacco's 20th state championship (since 1993), and I'm going to keep repeating myself — this feels great to be a part of this. This is a brotherhood for me, and coach Sacco always has my back, I have his back, and it just feels great and we're going to celebrate this," Byers said.
"This is the best feeling in the world, senior year, going out on top. What a great game. Holy Spirit, wow, we were up for a little bit and they came battling back. That's a tough team. E'lijah Gray is a helluva player, he's really tough to take down. But, wow, this feels amazing. They showed good resiliency. That's a good team, you can tell they are coached well and they have a great attitude, and you know they have to have all that to come back like that. But we kept ourselves together and won the game. I'm at a loss for words, it feels amazing to go back-to-back, I love it," said linebacker Bobby Hyndman, who is one of a host of outstanding seniors on the defensive side along with guys like Wisdom Quarshie, Sean Morris and Brad Lomax, as well as some solid underclassmen like Tyler Paige, Griffin and Angelo Vokolos.
"Today was a team effort, everyone from top to bottom played their hardest and that's why we came out on top. The line did a great job — Wisdom and Sean holding it down, Brad and Keshon making the big plays when it counted, me, Angelo, Tyler, the linebackers held it down. And the defensive backs had some big turnovers which gave us some momentum."
Byers finished with 96 yards on 20 carries, scored three touchdowns — including two as a receiver — and set school records for single-season rushing with 1,741 yards and touchdowns with 35. Ross added 135 yards, a career high, on just seven carries, and Shertel finished with 115 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns.
"Jayden did an excellent job, we couldn't have asked for more out of him," Hyndman said. "He's a great kid, as humble as they come. He came out today and really stepped up in big moments. He's going to be a great player in the future."
"That kid Ahmad Ross, having him is a blessing, he's like my little brother," Byers added. "I told him, 'you have to make big plays. If you make big plays it will take their eyes off of me. You know they are going to focus on me, and now if they have to focus on you, we'll be helping each other out.'"
Holy Spirit coach A.J. Russo said he knew the Spartans had to find a way to contain St. Joseph's powerful running game and force the Wildcats to throw the ball, and Shertel made them pay.
"That's something I talk about against the wing-T offense, with three backs in the backfield, anything can happen and you can't concentrate on just one guy. But, defensively, our guys played pretty well," he said. "They hit a couple big plays on us, but we were forcing them to throw the ball and the Shertel kid made a couple nice throws to Byers. That's what we had to do to them and they took advantage of it, so credit goes to them."
The Wildcats, who won their final five games after a midseason blowout loss to West Deptford following a Snapchat video controversy that led to several suspensions, including coach Sacco for a pair of games, had their hands full with Spirit running back E'lijah Gray, who rushed for a game-high 153 yards on 22 carries. Yost was effective as well before his injury, connecting on 10-of-25 attempts for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
"E'lijah Gray, he's a helluva back. That kid has a lot of heart," Byers said of his counterpart. "We'll see him out there again next year because he's in the same grade as me. We text on the phone almost every day, that's my A-1 brother right there and I just told him, 'let's come out here and do our thing and put on a show for these fans.'"
"I'm very proud of these guys, especially the seniors. These seniors were our first class that we had coming in under our staff. They had an opportunity to get to two state championships, so I'm very proud of the way they held it together and the way our kids played today," said Russo, who led the Spartans to the title game two years ago, a heartbreaking loss to Mater Dei in the final seconds. "Obviously, you lose a game like this and their heads are down a little bit, but they have nothing to hang their heads about. They played their tails off today."
"When we were in the locker room at halftime, nobody had their heads down, everybody was fighting until the end — and that's one thing I can say about Holy Spirit, everybody fights until the end, no matter what," Brown added. "We overcome, we adjust, and I don't care what anybody says, Holy Spirit fights until the end."
Brown said the Spartans were fighting hard for assistant coach Bill Walsh, who is battling ALS, and they sought out the longtime coach this morning for words of encouragement and inspiration.
"That's one thing coach Walsh stressed to us — the captains and coaches went and talked to him today and he said, 'no matter what, tell them don't quit.' And coach Walsh, I know you're going to read this, I love you so much, this is for you. We're coming back next year, I promise you," said Brown, a junior. "We learned about we never quit, no matter what the odds are, no matter what's against us, we adapt, we overcome and we adjust. These guys are phenomenal, we're a bunch of brothers. Whatever I need, I can call my coach, I can call anybody I need to."
Added Russo, "These guys don't give up. They were fighting until the end, they stuck together as a family, and that's all we ask for. As long as you're together and have everybody's back, hopefully the numbers will work out in your favor. The more you stick together, the better off you're going to be, and those guys did a good job with that."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays