PISCATAWAY - St. Joseph High School's football season ended Friday night just like so many others had in the last two decades or so - with the Wildcats winning a state championship.
They earned their 13th state title since the current playoff format was established in 1993. And they won it in emphatic fashion, dominating from start to finish en route to a 40-0 victory over St. Mary's of Rutherford in the Non-Public II final at Rutgers Stadium.
"We wanted to play hard for all 48 minutes and we did," St. Joseph junior defensive lineman Kaiwan Lewis said. "We didn't want anyone to have any questions about who was the best team on the field tonight."
When it was over, the Wildcats (10-1) gathered around coach Paul Sacco for a celebratory hug and then jogged over to the bleachers to join the hundreds of fans who made the trek from Hammonton and other towns in a loud round of cheers.
Minutes later, while his players carried yet another championship plaque to the parking lot, Sacco stood near the bench and fought back tears.
"I've got to say this one means a little more to me than the others because of my situation," said Sacco, who missed one game and was hospitalized last month with bleeding on the brain. "Just to be standing here is a blessing. I never thought I would have the opportunity to coach this team tonight. I was given a gift and it means a lot to me."
The Wildcats, buoyed by Sacco's presence on the sideline, delivered a terrific performance on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, St. Joseph stormed up and down the field, amassing 474 yards. Senior running back Gordon Hill led the attack, rumbling for 209 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. He opened the scoring on a 55-yard scamper on the Wildcats' fourth offensive play, bursting through a hole on the right side, running over a St. Mary's defender and outrunning five Gaels to the end zone.
Hill added a 3-yard TD in the second quarter and then blew through St. Mary's defense for a 47-yarder early in the fourth. He finished the season with 1,188 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
"We knew St. Mary's was a good team or they wouldn't be playing us for a state title," Hill said. "We thought it was really important to come out and get on top of them early. When we're able to do that to teams, we can see their confidence level go down."
Wildcats sophomore running back/defensive back Zach Grant followed Hill's initial TD with an 80-yard dash to the end zone on the second series. Grant turned the corner and raced up the right sideline. Sophomore Kaheem Reynolds, who later scored a 34-yard TD, escorted Grant to the end zone with a crunching block at the 5-yard line.
Junior wide receiver/defensive back Phillip Paulhill closed the scoring with a 75-yard TD on a reverse in the fourth quarter.
Hill, Grant, Reynolds and Paulhill were seldom touched during their touchdowns, thanks to a St. Joseph offensive line that overpowered St. Mary's defensive front seven.
"We wanted to win this one for coach Sacco because of what he's been through," Wildcats senior tackle Nick O'Brien said. "We wanted this really bad."
St. Joseph, No. 4 in The Press Elite 11, was equally impressive on defense.
St. Mary's managed 176 yards and committed four turnovers. Grant, Paulhill and Anthony Giagunto each snared an interception and defensive end Mike Earling forced a fumble.
Most importantly, St. Joseph stymied Q'uadree Hubbard, St. Mary's star running back. Hubbard, who entered the game with 1,383 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, was held to 26 yards on 16 carries by a swarming St. Joe defense led by Lewis, O'Brien and senior linebacker Josh Moore.
After the game, the team posed for pictures and then headed to the parking lot for the drive back to Hammonton for a celebration that was supposed to include fireworks and a parade through town.
"We wanted to make sure our seniors went out on top," Sacco said. "What a great bunch of kids. They've done everything we've asked of them for four years and they deserve it."
So did their coach.
Contact David Weinberg:
St. Mary's 0 0 0 0-0
St. Joseph 14 8 6 12-40
SJ-Hill 55 run. (Run failed)
SJ-Grant 80 run. (Grant pass from Giagunto)
SJ- Hill 3 run. (Hill run)
SJ-Reynolds 34 run. (Kick failed)
SJ-Hill 47 run. (Kick failed)
SJ-Paulhill 75 run. (Kick failed)
TEAM STATS SM SJ
First Downs 9 16
Team Rushing 38 452
Team Passing 138 22
Turnovers 3 0
Rushing-St Mary's, Hubbard 16-26, Rutty 2-16, Harvey 1-(-4). St. Joseph, Hill 22-209, Grant 3-92, Pauhill 1-75, Reynolds 6-52, Pogue 6-34, Giagunto 1-(-6).
Passing-St Mary's, McPherson 13-25-138-3, Hubbard 0-1-0. St. Joseph, Giagunto 4-6-22-0.
Receiving-St Mary's, Cuccinelli 4-75, Thomas 3-29, Godsil 3-21, Hubbard 3-13. St. Joseph, Valles 2-12, Paulhill 1-11, Wright 1-(-1).
Records: St. Mary's 7-4; St. Joseph 10-1.