EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It looked familiar.
It also looked different, unique, special.
"A dream come true," St. Joseph senior two-way standout Brad Lomax said of the Wildcats' 41-22 victory over Holy Spirit Friday night in the Non-Public 2 state championship game in MetLife Stadium.
Junior Jada Byers and sophomore Ahmad Ross each scored three touchdowns as St. Joseph won its ninth state title in the last 10 seasons and its 20th since the creation of the non-public state tournament in 1993.
So it nothing unusual to see the Wildcats gather at midfield, hoisting the championship trophy in air, hugging, high-fiving and posing for pictures at the end of a long season.
But this wasn't a typical season for South Jersey's most decorated program despite the familiar trappings at the end of a cold, damp night in the Meadowlands.
"When I got off that bus today, I couldn't go another day, do another practice," St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said of the physical, mental and emotional grind of perhaps the most challenging season of his 36 years at the helm of the program. "I've never been this tired."
The challenges at mid-season – from a surprising loss to Haddonfield to the suspension of Sacco and two players for two games after a social-media controversy to the 51-0 loss to West Deptford – cast Friday night's victory in a different kind of light.
This wasn't an exclamation point at the end of another tour de force of a season.
This was a proclamation of the program's resiliency, a defiant declaration that the players and coaches were able to bounce back from adversity and finish with a flourish.
"That's what it was the way we fought back and stayed in there," Lomax said. "We stayed in there. We didn't quit, and we finished on top."
Said Byers: "This makes it extra special. We had that big black cloud over us, everybody saying, 'St. Joe is going downhill.' But we faced the adversity, and we got it done, and we came out as No. 1."
Byers was a familiar part of this game. The dynamic junior scored on a pair of long touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Jayden Shertel and ran 31 yards for a key score after Holy Spirit cut the lead to 26-22 midway in the third quarter.
"I try to be humble, but I was like, 'Coach, they can't stick me,' " Byers said of his touchdown catches, which covered 55 and 60 yards.
Ross was something new. He opened the scoring with a 15-yard interception return for a touchdown. He also busted loose for an 88-yard touchdown late in the first half and clinched the victory with a 25-yard scoring burst late in the game.
"That's my 'little brother,' " Byers said of Ross.
Of Ross' 88-yard scoring run, Byers said, "It was amazing. I started running the field crying I was so excited."
St. Joseph (10-2) also got strong work from its defense as Lomax as well as sophomores Angelo Vokolos, Keshon Griffin and Ethan Hunt recorded sacks. Shertel and Ross collected interceptions.
Holy Spirit (8-4) was led by senior quarterback Ryan Yost, who threw three touchdown passes, as well as junior wide receiver Ahmad Brown and junior running back Elijah Gray.
Brown caught a pair of touchdown passes, while Gray ran 22 times for 156 yards.
Yost left the game late in the third quarter with an apparent collarbone injury.
Holy Spirit held the advantage in time of possession in the first half.
St. Joseph held the advantage on the scoreboard.
The Spartans controlled the clock and twice moved inside the Wildcats' 10-yard line only to come away without any points. On both occasions, St. Joseph's defense turned back Holy Spirit on fourth down.
The Wildcats' defense also scored the game's first points as Ross stepped in front of a pass and raced 15 yards with the interception for a touchdown midway in the first quarter. Byers added the two-point conversion run for an 8-0 lead.
Gray busted loose for a 34-yard gain to put the Spartans in position for their first score. Yost fired a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Isaiah Gerena to cut the margin to 8-6.
But St. Joseph seized command with a pair of big plays.
First, Byers took a deep pass from Shertel, cut away from his defender and raced into the end zone for a 55-yard scoring play.
The game turned fully in the Wildcats' favor late in the second quarter. First, St. Joseph defense stopped Gray on a fourth-and-2 from the 3-yard line.
Moments later, Ross broke loose for an 88-yard touchdown on a simple trap play with 1 minute, 16 seconds remaining in the first half.
That made it 20-6 and sent the Wildcats to the locker room under a shower of cheers from their red-clad fans.
Holy Spirit rallied in the third quarter, but St. Joseph put the game away with another flurry of big plays as Byers broke loose for a 31-yard touchdown, and Ross closed the deal with a 25-yard scoring run.
"We went through a lot," Sacco said, standing in the tunnel after the game. "It was such an uphill battle this year. To fight through that and end up like this, it's a great feeling."
Holy Spirit 6 0 16 0 – 22
St. Joseph 14 6 14 7 — 41
SJ: Ahmad Ross 15 interception return (Jada Byers run)
HS: Isaiah Gerena 10 pass from Ryan Yost (run fail)
SJ: Byers 55 pass from Jayden Shertel (pass fail)
SJ: Ross 88 run (run fail)
HS: Ahmad Brown 4 pass from Yost (Alvaro Lora pass from Yost)
SJ – Byers 60 pass from Shertel (run fail)
HS: Brown 72 pass from Yost (Elijah Gray run)
SJ: Byers 31 run (Byers run)