For the past few years, the state-championship football game for St. Joseph has been anticlimactic. The Wildcats have blitzed through the overmatched competition, and on the surface, one would think it would be more of the same this season.
Since NJSIAA state championships for Non-Public schools began in 1993, St. Joseph is 14-2 in title games.
And the Wildcats (9-1) will be in their accustomed position as favorites when they meet St. Mary (11-0) in the Non-Public Group 1 state final at 4 p.m. Saturday at the College of New Jersey.
St. Joseph is in a rare position this season - winning the conference title is perceived as much more difficult than capturing a state championship.
The Wildcats, in their first year in the Cape-Atlantic American Conference, won the crown despite having the smallest enrollment among the schools.
In fact, the Wildcats were The Inquirer's No. 1-ranked South Jersey team before they lost to Hammonton, 14-6, on Thanksgiving Eve. St. Joseph had clinched the conference before that game, but tasting defeat isn't something to which this program is accustomed.
That St. Joseph beat St. Mary in the past two state finals by a combined 91-0 would suggest the Wildcats could name the score.
Just don't suggest that to coach Paul Sacco, whose team won last year's final, 51-0.
"St. Mary's can compete with us," Sacco said. "It is going to be a great game and won't be anything like the last two years."
Many remain skeptical, but then again, St. Joseph was supposed to beat what was a 4-5 Hammonton team, as well.
Hammonton has one of the top programs in South Jersey and is the archrival of St. Joseph, but the Blue Devils were still having a disappointing season, to their standards, before the St. Joseph game.
So the loss was devastating to the Wildcats. After that, Sacco didn't have to do a selling job to his players about the merits of future opponents.
The week after losing to Hammonton, St. Joseph routed Hudson Catholic, 72-0, in the semifinals.
"I had my starters out by halftime," Sacco said.
In that one, even the reserves were angry about the loss to Hammonton, and Hudson Catholic happened to be the unfortunate team next in line.
St. Mary is by all accounts vastly improved and will have a size advantage, with players such as two-way lineman Robert Jones (6-foot-6, 285 pounds).
When it was suggested to St. Mary coach Mike Sheridan that St. Joseph isn't quite the juggernaut that it was last year, he replied simply, "I hope they are not as good."
But he realizes his team has to play its absolute best to be competitive.
"We hope we have closed the gap," Sheridan said.
Sheridan isn't making predictions, and he shouldn't be. The only prediction for this game is that the Wildcats will take things seriously, as if the results of the previous two seasons never occurred.