EWING TOWNSHIP - With one game left in the season, the St. Joseph High School football team turned to its seniors Saturday afternoon.
They ended their careers the way they began it - as state champions.
Senior quarterback Anthony Giagunto ran for two touchdowns and threw for another score as the Wildcats beat St. Mary's of Rutherford 36-0 to win the state Non-Public I championship at The College of New Jersey. St. Joe senior quarterback Miles Pease rushed 11 times for 201 yards and scored two touchdowns.
"We don't have a lot of seniors on the team," St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. "We told them before the game we're going to ride your coattails."
St. Joe continued it tradition of success with the victory. The Wildcats have won four straight state titles and 15 state championships since the Non-Public playoffs began in 1993.
"We've worked for this since freshman year," senior lineman Ray Lucas said. "We saw everybody else win championships and we wanted to follow in their footsteps."
Saturday's win capped one of the best seasons in school history. St. Joseph (10-1) didn't finish undefeated this season, as it did in last season and in 2006, 2005 and 1997.
But what makes this year stand out for the Wildcats is the schedule they played.
They won the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference, competing against local schools with the largest enrollments.
St. Joe and St. Mary's had played seven times in the playoffs before Saturday, with the Wildcats winning all of those games by an average margin of 28.6 points. St. Joe beat St. Mary 51-0 in last year's title game.
But these Gaels were the most talented St. Mary's team St. Joe had faced. The Gaels had outscored their 11 opponents 472-129 this season.
St. Joe dominated the Gaels again, though. The Wildcats scored on their first possession. Giagunto finished a nine-play, 65-yard drive by weaving his way through St. Mary's defenders for an 8-yard touchdown run.
"I just saw a seam and took it," Giagunto said.
St. Joe took control in the final seven minutes of the first half.
Lucas picked off a pass in the flat at the St. Mary's 36-yard line, and the 5-foot-10, 245-pounder rumbled 35 yards to the 1.
"Oh, man, I'm slow," Lucas said with a laugh when asked after the game why he didn't make it into the end zone.
On the next play, Cody Sampson scored on a 1-yard run to give the Wildcats a 14-0 lead with 6 minutes, 23 seconds left in the second quarter.
St. Joe scored two more times before the half. Giagunto scrambled and cut back for a15-yard touchdown run with 1:12 left in the half.
After St. Joe stopped St. Mary's and forced the punt, the Wildcats took over on the Gaels' 47.
Three plays later, Giagunto threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Pease on the final play of the first half to put the Wildcats up 29-0.
"I had to make a play," Pease said. "Coach said they were relying on me, so I had to make a play."
The St. Joe defense was even better than the Wildcats' offense.
In addition to Lucas, freshman cornerback A'Laam Horne intercepted a pass. Defensive lineman Kevin Goldsmith made two tackles for losses. Justin Kennedy made a tackle for a loss and Charles Cade sacked St. Mary's quarterback Ryan Monaghan.
The Wildcats held St. Mary's running back Julian Diaz, who entered the game with more than 1,800 rushing yards, to 8 yards on nine carries in the first half.
"We knew if we stopped the run, they would have to go the pass and we have some of the best defensive backs around," Lucas said.
The St. Joe seniors posed for a picture with the state championship trophy afterward. They held up four fingers to indicate the number of state titles they won.
Despite the Wildcats' storied history, some high school football fans questioned the schedule St. Joe played in past seasons.
But with the Wildcats' move to the American Conference, no one can question St. Joe's opponents this season. The Wildcats beat seven of the eight playoff teams they played. St. Joe has a sophomore-through-senior enrollment of 281 students, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. All but two of its regular-season opponents have enrollments of at least 1,000 students.
Lucas said the Wildcats played for more than just themselves this season. St. Joe's success this season against a tougher schedule vindicates past Wildcats teams that didn't get a chance to play this schedule.
"This shows we aren't a joke," Lucas said. "We're here to play football and that's what (St. Joe) is going to continue to do."
Contact Michael McGarry:
St. Mary's 0 0 0 0-0
St. Joseph 7 22 7 0-36
SJ-Giagunto 8 run (Ryker kick)
SJ-Sampson 1 run (Ryker kick)
SJ-Giagunto 15 run (Sampson pass from Quirindongo)
SJ-Pease 18 pass from Giagunto (Ryker kick)
SJ-Pease 80 run (Ryker kick)
Rushing-St. Mary's, Diaz 16-75. St. Joseph, Pease 11-201.
Passing-St. Mary's, Monaghan 8-16-2-61. St. Joseph, Giagunto 3-8-0-49.
Receiving-St. Mary's, McDaniel 2-32. St. Joseph, Pease 2-24, Ordille 1-33
Records-St. Mary 11-1, St. Joseph 10-1