HAMMONTON - In a matter of seconds, St. Joseph High School's Phil Paulhill was reminded of a game from last season in which the Wildcats trailed early and lost.
He felt uneasy when he realized in the second quarter that the score was almost the same Saturday as it had been a year ago. So the St. Joseph senior did the only thing he could to get rid of that pit in his stomach.
Paulhill ran for an 89-yard kickoff return touchdown to give St. Joseph (7-1), the No. 6 team in The Press Elite 11, the lead and spark the Wildcats to a 20-7 win over Egg Harbor Township (5-3).
St. Joe earned the third seed in the state Non-Public II playoff bracket and will play No. 2 St. Anthony of Jersey City this week at a time to be determined. EHT likely will be the fourth seed in South Jersey Group IV and host Shawnee in a first-round game.
The playoff matchups will be released officially on Monday.
The Wildcats trailed 7-6 in the second quarter Saturday before Paulhill's return.
"I thought about Hammonton last year, and it was (a similar score) in the second quarter too," Paulhill said, referring to a 16-14 loss to the Blue Devils last Thanksgiving. "I couldn't let that happen again."
Saturday was the first time St. Joseph trailed in a game this season besides its loss to unbeaten Holy Spirit. This was unfamiliar for many of the Wildcats, but junior Eli Pogue wasn't going to allow his teammates to lose focus.
After EHT's touchdown, Pogue pulled together the starters on the sideline.
"I told them, 'We only have a couple of minutes to go,' " Pogue said.
" 'We have to do this for the seniors. We have to put it away for our seniors' last moments on this field' (in St. Joseph's home finale)."
Paulhill and the others remembered what Pogue said and went out with a renewed vigor. Paulhill's touchdown put the Wildcats ahead, and the defense shut out EHT the rest of the way.
The Eagles had taken the lead moments before Paulhill's return when senior Stephan Thomas ran in a 1-yard touchdown with 3 minutes, 19 second to go in the first half.
Two big plays went against St. Joe in that drive. First, EHT quarterback Jon Kopistecki hit Dom Moody on a screen pass. Moody gained 53 yards on the play, putting the Eagles on the 6-yard line. Kopistecki completed 7-of-15 passes for 104 yards.
Two plays later, St. Joe was called for offsides, moving EHT closer to the goal line to set up Thomas' score.
"You can't have little things like that happen," St. Joe coach Paul Sacco said. "If you want to win in November, you have to cut all those things out."
After Paulhill's score made it 12-7, the St. Joe defense followed with an impressive three-and-out, giving up just 1 yard on the short drive.
The Wildcats' next drive ate up more than eight minutes. Even though they didn't score, St. Joe held the ball for the majority of the third quarter.
The Wildcats got the ball back with 3:30 to go in the third after another three-and-out. Gordon Hill ran for 41 yards on the first play from scrimmage on that drive, bringing St. Joe to the 12-yard line. Pogue's 7-yard run brought them close to the goal, and Hill finished it off for a touchdown to make it 20-7.
Hill finished with 157 yards on 20 carries.
"It was a defensive game," St. Joe defensive Kaiwan Lewis said. "It was a real struggle. We had to win it in the trenches."
EHT had an opportunity to score in the fourth when the Eagles recovered a fumble deep in St. Joe territory on the 15-yard line. But after three incomplete passes, St. Joe lineman Corey Litton broke into the backfield for a sack.
"The biggest turning point was the third quarter," Sacco said. "We had an eight-and-a-half-minute drive and a score. That was huge. They really pulled together."
Contact Susan Lulgjuraj:
Egg Harbor Township 0 7 0 0-7
St. Joseph 6 6 8 0-20
SJ-Giagunto 1 run (run failed)
EHT-Thomas 1 run (Mason kick)
SJ-Paulhill 89 kick return (pass failed)
SJ-Hill 6 run (Reynolds pass)
Team Stats EHT SJ
First Downs 6 12
Rushing 60 241
Passing 104 8
Turnovers 0 1
Rushing-EHT, Thomas 19-35, Kopistecki 4-18, Newmones 1-1, Moody 2-8, Garris 1-(-2). St. Joseph, Hill 20-157, Reynolds 12-40, Pogue 5-15, Grant 3-18, Giagunto 6-11.
Receiving-EHT, Moody 3-60, Thomas 2-4, Marquez 2-40. St. Joseph, Reynolds 1-8.
Passing-EHT, Kopistecki 7-15-0-104. St. Joseph, Giagunto 1-4-0-8.
Records-St. Joseph 7-1, EHT 5-3.