PISCATAWAY, N.J. - In the end, it worked out just like Elijah Phillips imagined: He caught the winning touchdown pass in the state title game.

So what if it was his only reception of the game?

So what if the rest of his opportunities to make big plays came on defense or as a punter?

So what if the pass-happy program he joined as a freshman evolved into one of the most run-oriented teams in the state by the time he was a senior?

He was a champion, twice over, and nothing could top the feeling of that Lambeau-like leap he took into the waiting arms of his celebrating family after yesterday's state championship game in Rutgers Stadium.

"I believe things happen for a reason," Phillips said after leading Holy Cross to a 7-0 victory over Hudson Catholic in the Non-Public 2 state title game on a cold and windy afternoon.

In a lot of ways, Phillips was the perfect symbol for the Lancers, many of whom showed the same perseverance, flexibility and loyalty as the senior wide receiver/defensive back from Willingboro.

It wasn't a smooth ride for Holy Cross in the program's first year under coach Tim McAneney. While drastically changing their offensive philosophy - from pass-first to run-first, run-second and run-third - the Lancers took it on the chin from Camden Catholic and Moorestown, and also lost to crosstown rival Delran.

Injuries mounted, too, and Phillips was among the wounded after the 28-7 loss to Moorestown on the night after Thanksgiving.

"He left that game in an ambulance with a separated shoulder," McAneney said. "How he came back to play in this game was beyond me."

Phillips had a bum shoulder. Senior running back Dan Dash fought an ankle injury all season. Senior fullback and linebacker Aaron Fant battled a sore hip to prepare for the state-title game, and several other Lancers were nursing bumps and bruises as well.

That's the way it works in early December, a long time from those practices in shorts and helmets on the soft grass in the middle of August.

"We just had to tough it out," Phillips said. "We just had to find a way to win this game."

Phillips was the most creative athlete on the field. Known mostly as a wide receiver entering this season, he made a huge impact in his final game as a defensive back, with 12 tackles, and also as a punter.

Phillips never punted before this season. But in difficult conditions, he averaged 38.4 yards on five punts, placed three inside the 20, and unleashed kicks of 54 and 56 yards.

His 56-yarder changed field position early in the fourth quarter and led to the game's only touchdown.

"I told the coaches I played soccer in sixth grade, and they told me I could punt," Phillips said.

Before this season, Phillips was touted by a couple of those online recruiting sites as one of the state's top prospects as a wide receiver. He had caught five touchdown passes as a junior, in a season in which Holy Cross featured quarterback Tommy Reilly.

But Phillips never got the chance to make much of an impact at the position this season as the Lancers became a running team.

"It was tough because we used to throw it 40 times a game," said Phillips, who is considering Stony Brook, Hofstra, and William and Mary as possible colleges and hopes to continue his football career at that level. "But I talked it over with my parents, and we decided that it wouldn't be right for me to leave the program."

McAneney said Phillips' attitude stayed positive even as the Lancers changed their approach and developed an offensive philosophy that did not maximize the speedy, 5-foot-11, 185-pound athlete's skills.

"He didn't care if we ran or passed, he just wanted us to win and to be a part of it," McAneney said.

The wonderful irony yesterday was that in his final game, Phillips made the biggest play as a wide receiver. The Lancers threw the football his way one time and he took it to the house.

He caught a quick screen from Austin Stein, slipped behind a couple of blocks, broke a tackle and raced 39 yards for a touchdown with 7 minutes, 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

It was his only catch. It was the Lancers' second and final pass attempt.

But a few minutes later, Phillips was jumping on the railing at the bottom row of the stadium and embracing family members after Holy Cross won its second consecutive state title.

"I'll never forget this," Phillips said.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia
at 856-779-3223