By Phil Anastasia
They were 3-3 after six games.
They were behind 24-0 at halftime of their second tournament game.
But on Saturday night, Shawnee completed one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of the program with a 31-22 victory over Timber Creek in the South Jersey Group 4 championship game at Rowan University.
Senior Anthony DiOrio ran for 140 yards, junior Jake Parola scored two touchdowns and sophomore quarterback Mike Welsh fired a pair of touchdown passes for sixth-seeded Shawnee (9-3), the No. 6 team in The Inquirer Top 25.
"These kids just believed," Shawnee coach Tim Gushue said. "I tod the seniors during our dinner tonight, 'Leave a legacy. You've already written the book, now do the epilogue.'"
It was a wild scene on the Rowan turf after the game as Shawnee players celebrated with students who charged the field after the victory on a bitterly cold night.
Shawnee senior Joe Lynn and Omar Anis embraced and fell to the ground. Players lifted the championship trophy in the air. Moments later, Gushue was doused with ice water as he addressed the team.
"These kids just believe they can overcome insurmountable obstacles," Gushue said.
Senior quarterback Dan Williams was 25-for-50 passing for 343 yards and three touchdowns for No. 5 Timber Creek (10-2), the No. 1 seed and two-time defending champion.
Williams finished his senior season with 3,540 yards, a state record. The old mark was 3,504 yards by Ryan Carty of Somerville in 2001.
"They had a great game plan," Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said of Shawnee. "I told our kids, 'If we're at our best and they're at their best, we have a good chance to win the ballgame.'
"They were at their best and we weren't at our best and they deserved to win the game."
Shawnee got great work from its defense, which was led by linebacker Curtis Corley and cornerbacks David Smith and Nick Corbi, who recorded interceptions.
"Our secondary brought it," Gushue said. "That was as physical as we've played all year."
Shawnee burst to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. The Renegades got a 43-yard touchdown run from Parola and a 38-yard field from Lynn.
Timber Creek answered as Williams hit Cameron Chambers with a 33-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 10-6.
That set a pattern: Shawnee would surge in front, and Timber Creek would respond.
The Renegades built leads of 17-6 and 24-14, but each time the Chargers battled back to close the gap.
"What a great team," Gushue said of Timber Creek. "I saw them again Kingsway (in the semifinals) and I was like, 'Whoa.'"
In the second quarter, Shawnee converted a fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line as Welsh faked a handoff to DiOrio, then lofted a scoring pass to DiOrio behind the Timber Creek defense.
Williams whipped Timber Creek down the field and fired a three-yard touchdown pass to Alan Butler to cut the leads to 17-14 with just 0:19 left in the first half.
Welsh hit Brandon Bye, who was wide open behind the Timber Creek secondary, with an 84-yard pass for a touchdown to stretch the margin to 24-14. But Williams answered again with a nine-yard scoring strike to Chambers.
In the end, Shawnee found a way to make one last stop, with Rhett Saltiel tackling Williams two yards short of a first down on a 4th-and-12 with three minutes, 33 seconds left.
The Renegades sealed the win as DiOrio broke off runs of 16 and 18 yards to set up Parola's second touchdown from three yards away.
"He was possessed," Gushue said of DiOrio. "He's one of a kind."
Shawnee 10 7 7 7 -- 31
Timber Creek 0 14 0 8 -- 22
S: Jake Parola 43 run (Joe Lynn kick)
S: Joe Lynn 38 FG
TC: Cameron Chambers 33 pass from Dan Williams (pass fail)
S: Anthony DiOrio 4 pass from Mike Welsh (Lynn kick)
TC: Alan Butler 3 pass from Williams (Adonis Jennings pass from Williams)
S: Brandon Bye 84 pass from Welsh (Lynn kick)
TC: Chambers 9 pass from Williams (Jennings pass from Williams)
S: Parola 3 run (Lynn kick)
-- Contact Phil Anastasia at email@example.com