Coach Paul Sacco said watching his St. Joseph football team’s first-half performance was like watching a baseball team repeatedly load the bases but not score any runs.
So, Jada Byers’ first carry of the second half must have felt like a grand slam.
Byers raced 80 yards for a touchdown, snapping a frustrating stretch for his team and setting the stage for his Wildcats’ 19-11 win over host Vineland on Saturday.
That touchdown — his first of two on the afternoon — earned Byers the record for most points ever scored by a Cape-Atlantic League football player.
“It’s great to be a part of something like that. That’s all you can really say,” said Byers, a senior running back who has scored 542 career points, surpassing the previous record of 532 set by Ocean City graduate Kevin Sinclair in 1997.
“I know I couldn’t do it without my o-line,” Byers said. “I told them that before the game.”
Byers has 16 touchdowns this season for the 5-1 Wildcats.
On Saturday, he finished with 19 carries for 171 yards. He also caught a 25-yard touchdown pass to give St. Joe a 19-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, underscoring a major turnaround for an offense that scored just three points in the first half, despite having the ball inside the Vineland 30-yard line on four different drives.
During that stretch, Byers was stopped on fourth and goal from the 6-yard line. He was also turned away on fourth down from the 3-yard line late in the third quarter.
Much of the credit goes to the big, aggressive Vineland defense, which is already battle-tested against one of the toughest schedules in South Jersey.
Led by 6-foot-5 Virginia Tech recruit Tyreem Powell, the Fighting Clan didn’t give Byers much room to run in the first half, and managed to completely stifle the Wildcats’ passing game.
“A couple things today really hurt us, but the effort was there,” said Vineland coach Dan Russo, whose team dropped to 2-4. “We played a heck of a game against a heck of a team, and we can build on this.”
On offense, Powell was starting his third game as Vineland’s quarterback. Russo hopes the move makes the unit more dynamic.
Powell and the offense showed flashes, particularly on a long scoring drive late in the fourth quarter, but were largely shutdown.
St. Joseph forced five turnovers. Four were in the first half, including a botched shotgun snap that Powell fell on in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
Byers also had a second-half interception on the first play after his 80-yard touchdown.
While the senior gave credit to the Vineland defense, Byers said his team just needed to play with more energy, and that’s what he was trying to bring.
“We didn’t come out fast enough,” Byers said. “Everything just started connecting (in the second half). Our team started balling out. We were talking more, communicating more.”
Byers played through cramps and lower back stiffness through much of the second half. On two occasions, trainers treated him on the field.
“This is my senior year. I told my team I was going to put it all on the line for them,” Byers said. “I’m just trying to live up to my word, and I’m glad my team is right there with me and always has my back.”
St. Joseph 0 3 9 7 — 19
Vineland 0 3 0 8 — 11
SJ: Trevin DelGozzo 25 field goal
V: Henry Garton 22 field goal
SJ: Jada Byers 80 run (DelGozzo kick)
SJ: Byers 25 pass from Jayden Shertel (DelGozzo kick)