BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - The seniors of the St. Augustine Prep football team preserved their legacy with a fourth-quarter rally Wednesday night.
Darnell Laws scored on a 15-yard run with 10 minutes, 46 seconds left in the game to give the Hermits a tougher than expected 21-19 win over Buena Regional. St. Augustine (9-1) is No. 8 in The Press' Elite 11. Hermits quarterback Dustin Thomas threw two touchdown passes to finish with a southern New Jersey-record 69 for his career.
"As a senior," Laws said, "I didn't want to go out losing my last game."
A win would have made Buena's season. The Chiefs finished 4-6.
"It's heartbreaking," Buena coach Paul Callahan said.
The St. Augustine seniors changed how the rest of the Cape-Atlantic League looks at Hermits football.
St. Augustine was 2-8 in 2005 - the year before the current seniors arrived. But they have gone a combined 27-4 the last three seasons and won consecutive Cape-Atlantic League National Conference titles.
The Hermits' lone loss this season was 49-14 to Seton Hall Prep (Essex County) in the first round of the state Non-Public IV playoffs on Nov. 14.
A loss to Buena, and the Hermits' seniors would have finished their careers with two straight defeats and made it easy for fans to dismiss what St. Augustine has accomplished.
"We used to be the laughingstock of South Jersey," said Laws, who rushed for 131 yards on 18 carries. "If we lost this game, everyone would have been like, 'They are what we thought they were.' We had to come out here and show it wasn't a fluke."
Buena vs. St. Augustine is a neighborhood rivalry. The schools are located a five-minute drive from each other. The Hermits have won three straight, but Buena leads the series 12-7.
The Chiefs played as if the rivalry meant more to them than to St. Augustine. They forced turnovers and made big plays to put themselves in position for the upset.
Quarterback Donetae McKinnon threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Hillgrube to tie the score at 7-7 in the first quarter.
Buena took advantage of three straight St. Augustine turnovers - two interceptions and fumble - to take a second-half lead. Hillgrube and Eric Hensel intercepted passes for Buena, and Michael Haygood recovered a fumble.
McKinnon (24 carries for 103 yards) scored on a 20-yard run to cut St. Augustine's lead to 14-13 with 2:13 left in the third quarter. The Chiefs missed the extra point.
Buena had the ball back three plays later after a St. Augustine fumble.
McKinnon capped a four-play, 38-yard drive with a 4-yard run to give the Chiefs a 19-14 lead with 11:53 to play. Buena went for the two-point conversion but was stopped on a run up the middle.
"The little things always make the difference in games like this," Callahan said.
St. Augustine seemed to realize at this point that it was involved in a rivalry game. The Hermits dominated the rest of the way as the fog rolled in, making it difficult to see across the field.
They drove 44 yards in four plays - three Laws runs and an incomplete pass - to take the lead.
The Hermits' defense then shut down Buena's offense. Gabe Voumard, Chris Razo and Matt Piotrowicz each had tackles for losses in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs had just 3 yards of offense in the final 12 minutes.
"We're a veteran team," Hermits coach Dennis Scuderi said. "We didn't play well, and I'm sure (Buena) had something to do with it. But we responded. They come through. That's character."
The defeat was a disappointing one for the Chiefs. Buena, however, does return a number of key players, including McKinnon, who's a junior.
Meanwhile, St. Augustine said goodbye to seniors who have been mainstays of the program the past three years.
No one is identified more with St. Augustine football than Thomas, who is headed to Villanova University.
"It's exciting but sad at the same time," Thomas said. "Hopefully (in college) I'll be able to build the same family I've built here."
Contact Michael McGarry: