Coach Paul Sacco of the St. Joseph High School prepared for today's state championship game with mixed emotions.
The opportunity for the Wildcats to win their third straight state title created excitement.
But this will also be the final game for the St. Joe seniors - one of the best classes in school history.
"You get so attached to these kids," Sacco said. "They've done everything we've asked them. They've been great leaders. You don't want to see them go."
St. Joe (9-0) meets St. Mary's of Rutherford (6-3) for the state Non-Public I championship at 1 p.m. at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, Mercer County.
The Wildcats are the top seed and No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. They can cap one of the most dominant seasons ever by a local team with a win today. St. Joe has outscored its opponents 423-19. The Wildcats haven't allowed a touchdown in 27 quarters.
The St. Joe senior class is a combined 27-4 the past three seasons. The class features standout defensive ends Kaiwan Lewis and Max Valles, who are headed to the University of South Carolina and Virginia, respectively.
"We want to put the cherry on top of the ice cream and finish off this great season," Lewis said.
In St. Mary, St. Joe meets a team that relies on the running game. Junior tailback Jonathan Diaz has rushed for more than 1,600 yards.
"They're much bigger than we are," Sacco said of St. Mary's. "Our think our team speed is going to help us. I think it will be a game where we have to use our speed and some finesse. I don't just see us running the ball down their throats."
St. Joe beat St. Mary 40-0 last year to win the state Non-Public II title. Despite that result and their impressive credentials this year, the Wildcats aren't taking anything for granted today.
Lewis said Sacco will make sure the Wildcats won't have any letdowns today.
"He lets us know that every day is a grind and we can be beat by anybody," Lewis said. "He makes us practice hard every day."
A win today and St. Joe also solidifies its status as one of the best teams in school history. That is saying something as few New Jersey programs can match the Wildcats' tradition of success. St. Joe has won 13 state titles since the state Non-Public playoffs began in 1993. St. Joe's 2005 and 2006 teams also finished as undefeated state champions.
Lewis said a win today would be doing things "the St. Joe way."
"It means we get to go out in the style we want to," he said.
Contact Michael McGarry:
St. Joseph (9-0) vs. St. Mary's Rutherford (6-3)
What: State Non-Public I final
When/where: 1 p.m. today at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, Mercer County
Tickets: $5.50 for adults and $2 for students and senior citizens
Radio: 97.3 FM
Playoff history: Few teams in the state can match St. Joe's tradition of success. The Wildcats have won two straight state championships and beat St. Mary's 40-0 in last year's state Non-Public II final. St. Joe has won 13 championships since the state Non-Public titles began in 1993. St. Mary's has made 23 playoff appearances with its last championship coming in 2006.
St. Mary: Ryan Monoghan, QB, 31-of-44 for 439 yards ands five touchdowns; Jonathan Diaz, RB/LB, 266 carries for 1,608 yards and 16 touchdowns; AJ Godsil, WR, 30 catches for 405 yards and seven touchdowns; Kidane Rutty, FB/LB, two sacks and one interception.
St. Joseph: Anthony Giagunto, QB/DB, 32-of-62 for 692 yards and nine touchdowns; Eli Pogue, RB, 65 carries for 565 yards and 13 touchdowns; Kaheem Reynolds, RB, 81 carries for 645 yards; Max Valles, DE/WR, 11 catches for 196 yards and four touchdowns and 30 tackles and seven sacks on defense; Cory Litton, OL/DL, 43 tackles; Kaiwan Lewis, TE/DE, 48 tackles.
Keys to victory: St. Joseph is the favorite. The Wildcats are No. 1 in The Press Elite 11 and haven't allowed a touchdown in 27 quarters. St. Joe must score early to take away St. Mary's upset hopes and slow down Diaz.
Did you know: St. Joe is 6-0 against St. Mary's in the playoffs. Here are those past matchups:
2010: Non-Public II final: St. Joe 40, St. Mary's 0
2002: Non-Public I final : St. Joe 24, St. Mary's 6
2000: Non-Public I final: St. Joe 47, St. Mary's 7
1998: Parochial I semifinal: St. Joe 21, St. Mary's 14
1997: Parochial I final: St. Joe 20, St. Mary's 3
1996: Parochial I semifinal: St. Joe 27, St. Mary's 0