Sencere Tapp's contribution to the St. Joseph football team's crusade to return the state championship trophy
to Hammonton stretches far beyond the statistics sheet.
The soft-spoken senior defensive end has made his mark in tangible ways. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Tapp leads the Wildcats' defense with 61 tackles and 22 tackles for loss. He also has 5 1/2 sacks.
But on a junior-heavy squad with a sophomore as its most dynamic player, Tapp might be most valuable as a quiet, respected leader of a team on the brink of program history.
"He keeps things alive," St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said of Tapp. "He was a great leader for us last year, even when we were struggling and he carried that over through the offseason and into this season.
"He's just a great kid to be around."
Tapp, fullback/linebacker Qwahsin Townsel and defensive back Cejai Parrish are among the handful of seniors who play prominent roles for St. Joseph (11-0), the No. 1 team in the Inquirer Top 25 rankings.
St. Joseph, which has won 18 titles since the creation of the state tournament in 1993, will finish 12-0 for the first time in school history with a victory over Mater Dei (8-1) in the Non-Public 2 state championship game Sunday at Rowan.
"That would be something," Tapp said. "There's so much great tradition here, to be the first team to win 12, that would be special."
Sunday's championship game will be a rematch rich in symbolism for St. Joseph, which had won seven state titles in a row before losing to Mater Dei, 26-0, in last season's semifinals. That ended a 7-4 season for the Wildcats, and when the Seraphs completed a perfect 12-0 season by winning the state title a
week later, there was a perception among some observers that the team from Monmouth County was poised to steal St. Joseph's crown as the dominant, small-school, non-public power in New Jersey.
The Wildcats had other ideas. This season has been something of a redemption tour, with victories over the three other teams that beat them last season — Holy Spirit, Cedar Creek and St. Augustine. A win over Mater Dei would make it 4-for-4.
"Last year was a setback for us," Tapp said. "People got down on us, and coming into this season we weren't ranked that highly. People sleeping on us.
"We've been working all year to show that we're back."
Tapp played for the Interboro youth football program in Pine Hill before following his older brother, Sonny, to St. Joseph. He has been a three-year starter at defensive end, battling injuries earlier in his career.
"There were times when we weren't even sure he was going to be able to play," Sacco said. "But he's always been there. He plays with a high motor, and he makes a lot of big plays."
Tapp has been at his best in big games. He had 1 1/2 sacks and caused a crucial second-half fumble in a comeback win over Holy Spirit. He had five tackles and a sack in the win over Cedar Creek and six tackles and a sack in the win over St. Augustine.
On a team with top young players such as sophomore Jada Byers, junior Wisdom Quarshie and freshman Angelo Vokolos, Tapp's leadership has been just as valuable to the cause, according to Sacco.
Tapp said it's been tough at times since he likes to think of himself as "friends with everybody" on the team. But as a senior, Tapp knows it's been important to hold his younger teammates accountable in the Wildcats' demanding program.
"Last year I was more laid-back," Tapp said. "This year, I've been a lot more focused on trying to keep everything
straight, make sure guys are doing what they need to do.
"Sometimes it gets hard because sometimes you have to not be a friend as much to keep everything straight."
St. Joseph (11-0) vs. Mater Dei (8-1), Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Rowan University.
Road to Rowan: St. Joseph beat St. Mary, 54-6, and Immaculata, 64-26. Mater Dei beat Holy Cross, 42-22, and Holy Spirit, 35-34.
Previous titles: St. Joseph, 18 (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1993). Mater Dei, 1 (2016).
Coaches: St. Joseph's Paul Sacco is 316-62-5 in his 36th season. Mater Dei's Dino Mangiero is 20-1 in his second season.
St. Joseph players to watch: Senior FB Qwahsin Townsel (203 carries, 1,374 yards, 28 TDs), sophomore RB Jada Byers (115 carries, 1,373 yards, 25 total TDs), junior two-way lineman Wisdom Quarshie, senior DE Sencere Tapp.
Mater Dei players to watch: Senior QB George Pearson, sophomore RB Malik Ingram, senior LB Jayden Johnson.
Fast fact: St. Joseph is 80-9 since 2010.