EWING TOWNSHIP — The St. Joseph High School football team faced a single moment of doubt during the state Non-Public I final Saturday afternoon.
St. Marys of Rutherford scored in the third quarter. It was the first time St. Mary had crossed the goal line against St. Joe in four years. The touchdown gave St. Mary the momentum and the belief it could upset the Wildcats.
It also shook St. Joe out of its doldrums.
“I believe that (touchdown) woke us up,” St. Joe running back and defensive back Rocco Ordille said. “We were sleeping a little bit.”
Ordille ran for two touchdowns as the Wildcats won their fifth straight state championship with a 33-13 win over St. Mary at The College of New Jersey.
“This feels great,” St. Joe sophomore quarterback and defensive back Salaam Horne said. “This is why I came to this school — to win championships.”
St. Joe entered the game as the favorite, primarily because the Wildcats had beaten St. Mary by the combined score of 127-0 in the past three state finals. St. Joe (11-1) is ranked No. 2 in The Press Elite 11.
The Gaels (9-3) ended that scoreless streak during the second half. Running back Keon Banks threw 34-yard option pass to Michael Polonkay for a touchdown that cut St. Joe’s lead to 19-7 with 5 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third quarter.
St. Mary played with more energy after the score. On their next possession, the Gaels drove to the St. Joe 20.
“That was our opportunity,” St. Mary coach Mike Sheridan said.
But the 20 was where the drive stopped, and the momentum shifted back to St. Joe.
The Wildcats tackled St. Mary quarterback William Krajnik three straight times for losses and forced a punt.
Defensive lineman Chris Carey sacked Krajnik on first down. Ordille quickly pursued the football and was in on the second- and third-down tackles.
“We had to stick our feet in the ground,” Ordille said. “We had to make a stop there. Everyone gave it their all.”
After the punt, St. Joe drove for a touchdown. Ordille (nine caries for 78 yards) followed blocks from fullback C.J. LaFragola and lineman Joe Greer and dashed through the St. Mary defensive line for a 40-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats a 26-7 with 9:31 left in the game.
“I knew the team needed that touchdown,” Ordille said. “The hole was wide open.”
St. Joe didn’t play as crisply as it usually does in the first half. But the Wildcats managed to methodically build a 19-0 halftime lead.
The Wildcats scored on their first possession, driving 53 yards in nine plays. Ordille scored on a 17-yard run with 8:46 left in the first.
St. Joe’s second touchdown came after Salaam Horne recovered a fumble at the St. Mary 49-yard line. Five plays later, Salaam’s twin, A’Laam Horne, swept left 34 yards for a touchdown to put the Wildcats up 12-0 with 3:05 left in the first quarter.
LaFragola scored St. Joe’s final touchdown of the first half on a 5-yard run with 4:33 left in the second quarter.
Despite St. Joe’s 19-0 lead, St. Mary didn’t wilt.
“We took their shots and we kept coming back,” Sheridan said.
Still, St. Joe just had too much speed and depth. Salaam Horne scored St. Joe’s final touchdown on a 25-yard, fourth-quarter interception.
“This wasn’t our typical game that we wanted to play but a win is a win,” St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said.
Few teams can match St. Joe’s tradition of playoff success. The Wildcats have won 16 championships since the state Non-Public playoffs began in 1993.
“They’re all special,” Sacco said. “It doesn’t get old.”
St. Joe posed for pictures with the state championship trophy. The Wildcats then quickly turned their attention to next season, when the Wildcats have the potential to be the best team in the school’s illustrious history. Every player who scored Saturday for St. Joe will return in 2014.
“Instead of being 15 and 16, these kids will be 16 and 17,” Sacco said. “We’re excited about next season.”