GLASSBORO — The St. Joseph High School football team answered every question Sunday afternoon.
Qwahsin Townsel and Jada Byers combined to rush for more than 400 yards as the Wildcats pounded Mater Dei 30-14 to win the state Non-Public II title at Rowan University. The victory gave St. Joe its first 12-0 season and its 19th championship since the state Non-Public playoffs began in 1993.
Townsel carried 32 times for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Byers rushed 27 times for 199 yards and two scores.
“This is the biggest win of my life,” Townsel said. “We’re 12-0 for the first time in St. Joe history. We made history.”
The top-seeded Wildcats rushed the field in celebration after the final seconds ticked off the clock. That was in contrast to last season, when Mater Dei beat St. Joe 26-0 in the state semifinals.
The loss caused some South Jersey high school football observers to doubt St. Joe. How long would it take for the Wildcats to get back to the top — if it got back at all? Would Mater Dei replace St. Joe as the state’s top small-school parochial program?
“We wanted to quiet all the doubters,” Townsel said. “Everybody was saying the school was going to close, St. Joe would never be back to a state championship. We came out with a chip on our shoulder to prove everybody wrong.”
The Wildcats’ performance Sunday was one of their most impressive in a state title game. That’s mostly because of the opposition. Third-seeded Mater Dei (Monmouth County) is a hard-hitting team with multiple talented players, especially at the skill positions.
“I told the kids before the game there are no excuses,” St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. “We weren’t going to win on emotion. We were going to win on execution. We beat a good football team. I’d never seen kids put hits on kids like they did, but our kids just bounced up.”
St. Joe controlled the game from the start primarily behind its offensive line: center Tucker Monico, guards Brad Lomax and Bobby Hyndman and tackles Wisdom Quarshie and Dashon Birch.
On the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Townsel broke through the line of scrimmage for a 56-yard gain to the Mater Dei 8-yard line. Three plays later, Byers, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound speedy sophomore who spent much of the game at quarterback, sprinted across the goal line from 1 yard out to give St. Joe an 8-0 lead it never relinquished.
Townsel piled up the yards despite having injured his hamstring near the end of the first quarter.
“It was hurting,” Townsel said. “I don’t know what I did to it. But I just kept telling my team I was going to play through it for them. It was the last 48 minutes of my life for high school (football), and I wanted to finish it strong.”
While St. Joe controlled the ball with its running game, the Wildcats’ defense slowed a Mater Dei offense that had scored a total of 77 points in its previous two playoff wins.
Defensive end Sencere Tapp consistently pressured Mater Dei quarterback George Pearson. Defensive back Diego Martinez covered Mater Dei’s talented receivers and knocked down a pass. Byers, who also plays defensive back, made a key interception early in the fourth quarter. St. Joe held Mater Dei to 15 rushing yards in the first half.
The Mater Dei offense did have one big moment. Pearson threw a 44-yard TD pass to Gunnison Bloodgood with 27 seconds left in the first half to cut St. Joe’s lead to 14-6 at halftime.
The Seraphs carried that momentum into the third quarter. St. Joe’s first possession of the second half ended in a punt. Townsel came off the field and told a St. Joe assistant to give him the ball.
On the Wildcats’ next possession, he finished a six-play, 48-yard drive with a 19-yard run to put St. Joe up 22-6 with 1 minutes, 6 seconds left in the third quarter. Townsel carried five times for 38 yards on the drive.
“We needed to keep the chains moving,” Townsel said. “I was determined to win this game and do it for my team.”
St. Joe clinched the victory with what can only be described as a typical St. Joe touchdown drive. The Wildcats took 7:38 to drive 87 yards in 15 plays. Byers finished the possession with a 7-yard run to give the Wildcats a 30-6 lead with 4:22 left.
There were no passes on the drive, just Byers and Townsel alternating carries.
“To keep the ball away from them for that long,” Sacco said, “was precious.”
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, Byers and Townsel embraced. Byers cried. His grandmother Gimmie Lee Simmons died two days ago.
“The game was for my grandmother,” he said. “I just put her in my heart and said she’s right here on the field with me.”
St. Joe fans filled most of the Rowan home bleachers. Wildcats fans waited for the players to leave the field and greeted them with raucous cheers.
With Sunday’s win, the Wildcats beat all four teams – St. Augustine, Holy Spirit, Cedar Creek and Mater Dei – that defeated them last season.
As the Wildcats made celebrations plans, no one was asking any questions about their future survival. St. Joe could be even better next season. Tapp and Townsel are among the few seniors on the championship team.
“I don’t think anybody thought we would be in this position, 12-0 and being a state champion,” Sacco said with a smile. “It’s still a young team. That’s the good thing.”
Mater Dei 0 6 0 8 — 14
St. Joseph 8 6 8 8 — 30
SJ – Byers 1 run (Townsel run)
SJ – Townsel 3 run (run failed)
MD – Bloodgood 44 pass from Pearson (kick failed)
SJ – Townsel 19 run (Byers run)
SJ – Byers 7 run (Byers run)
MD – Devaney 11 pass from Pearson (Ingram run)
Rushing – MD. Ingram 12-50; SJ. Townsel 32-232, Byers 27-199
Passing – MD. Pearson 8-16-1-93. SJ. Donovan 0-1-0-0
Receiving – MD. Devaney 3-67
Records – Mater Dei 8-2; St. Joseph 12-0