PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The event dubbed the “Rumble on the Raritan,” matching St. Joseph and Highland, showcased some of the region’s top programs and players.
And for Rutgers, it was a chance to dangle its swanky stadium — and dreams of Big 10 glory — in front of would-be high school recruits.
The players were eager to show why they deserved the attention.
Highland running back Johnny Martin already has an offer from Rutgers.
And St. Joseph’s Jada Byers? Well, he wants one.
“I’m tired of being humble,” said Byers, the 5-foot-7 running back who was anything but meek as he exploded for 226 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, dazzling the crowd and leading his Wildcats to a 34-20 win over the Tartans on opening day of the season for both teams on a hot Saturday afternoon at Rutgers SHI Stadium.
“We just played a bad game. We didn’t play as a team,” said Martin, who put on a show of his own, rushing for 240 yards on 25 carries, although his touchdown runs of 36 and 73 yards came in the fourth quarter after the game was out of reach.
“It was good having this experience on a field I could potentially play on again,” he said.
This was the 327th career win for legendary Wildcats coach Paul Sacco — significant because it makes him the winningest coach not just in South Jersey history but in the history of the greater Philadelphia region. With the win, Sacco surpassed the 326 wins amassed by fellow legend Mike Pettine Sr., who turned Central Bucks West High School into a national power over a 33-year career that ended in 1999.
Sacco has been head coach at St. Joseph since 1982, compiling a career record of 327-63-5 and nabbing 20 state championships along the way, including last season’s Non-Public Group 2 championship.
“I couldn’t tell you how many wins I’ve had,” said Sacco, who was more interested in his team’s performance.
“I thought we played really well, especially coming out in the second half,” Sacco said. “And then in the fourth quarter, [Highland] ran the same stuff, but now they’re breaking some runs because we got a little bit tired.”
The Wildcats, leading 8-6, took over at their own 20-yard line with 1 minute, 28 seconds left in the first half.
It was the first time Byers’ presence was really felt.
He ran for 23 yards on the first play of the drive and caught a 43-yard bomb on the second play, setting up a five-yard scoring pass from Hayden Shertel (9-of-15 for 162 yards, two touchdowns) to Keshon Griffith with four seconds left to play in the half.
It gave St. Joseph momentum that the Wildcats didn’t lose until late in the fourth quarter.
On the opening drive of the second half, it was Griffith’s 42-yard reception that set up a Byers one-yard touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 21-6 lead.
The rout was on at that point, and Byers (16 rushes for 133 yards, 5 catches for 93 yards) broke off a 55-yard run for a touchdown and then caught 36-yard pass for a score to give St. Joseph a 34-6 lead with six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“It felt great being out here today,” Byers said. “A lot of people have been calling me this week, saying, ‘Jada, we know the best running back in South Jersey is you.’ Well, now it’s time to come out here and prove it.”
Highland 6 0 0 14 — 20
St. Joseph 8 6 13 7 — 34
SJ: Cohl Mercado 23 run (Jayden Shertel run)
H: Javon Holley 15 run (pass failed)
SJ: Keshon Griffin 5 pass from Shertel (run failed)
SJ: Jada Byers 1 run (Trevin DelGozzo kick)
SJ: Byers 55 run (kick failed)
SJ: Byers 36 pass from Shertel (DeGozzo kick)
H: Johnny Martin 39 run (Justin Carter kick)