BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — St. Joseph High School football coach Paul Sacco was a little concerned about his defensive backfield entering Friday’s game against St. Augustine Prep.
His worries proved to be unfounded.
The Wildcats’ secondary was one of the primary reasons the team remained undefeated with a 30-8 victory over the rival Hermits.
They registered four interceptions — one apiece by Jada Byers, Keshon Griffin, Nate Johnson and Jayden Shertel — as part of an impressive defensive performance.
“We haven’t been (practicing) outside too much because of the weather,” Wildcats coach Paul Sacco said. “We spent a lot of time (Thursday) lining them up and making sure they could cover the (pass) routes.”
Shertel’s interception was the turning point of the game.
The Wildcats, the top-ranked team in The Press Elite 11, led 14-0 early in the second quarter, but the Hermits were driving. They reached the St. Joe 36-yard line while their fans, including the Richland Rowdies student section, cheered.
St. Augustine, No. 5 in the Elite 11, decided to gamble and threw a deep pass toward the end zone. Shertel and a Hermits receiver both went for the pass, but Shertel wrestled the football away from him to end the threat and quiet the crowd.
“I knew they were going to pick on me because I’m a new starter on defense,” said Shertel, a sophomore from Hammonton. “I have to give a lot of credit to our defensive line. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, so I have to do my job on my end. It was basically a jump ball, and I took it away. That’s what being in the weight room does for us.”
St. Joseph’s strength and conditioning regimen enables the team to compensate for a lack of depth. All 11 players line up on offense and defense.
Besides the interceptions, the defensive backs also made major contributions on offense. Griffin and Johnson, both wide receivers, caught touchdown passes. Shertel, the quarterback, threw one of the TDs. Byers, one of South Jersey’s top running backs, ran for 155 yards and threw the TD pass to Griffin.
The defensive backs even scored one of the touchdowns when Byers grabbed an overthrown pass, sprinted up the right sideline and faked out a St. Augustine player just before crossing the goal line for a 74-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“Once I caught the interception, all I could think of was (scoring a touchdown),” said Byers, a junior from Bridgeton.
The secondary was part of an all-around solid defensive effort by the Wildcats against a talented St. Augustine offense.
The Wildcats limited the Hermits to 174 total yards, including 9 rushing.
“You know what they say,” Shertel said. “Offense wins games and defense wins championships.”