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St. Joseph looks to finish strange football season in familiar fashion: with state title

In the final game of a campaign in which the coach and two players were suspended in a controversy over a video posted to social media, the Wildcats are looking to secure their ninth championship in the last 10 years.

Veteran coach Paul Sacco and St. Joseph are seeking their ninth state title in the last 10 years in Friday night's Non-Public 2 final vs. Holy Spirit.
Veteran coach Paul Sacco and St. Joseph are seeking their ninth state title in the last 10 years in Friday night's Non-Public 2 final vs. Holy Spirit.Read moreElizabeth Robertson/Staff photographer

It's been the strangest of seasons for the St. Joseph's football team.

It still can end in the most familiar of fashions.

"What we went through was definitely a life lesson," said two-way senior lineman Wisdom Quarshie, a Temple recruit. "But we tried to make sure that it didn't stop us. We tried to keep our heads up and put that behind us."

On Friday night, St. Joseph (9-2) will face old rival Holy Spirit (8-3) for the Non-Public 2 state championship at  MetLife Stadium.

With a victory, St. Joseph will capture its ninth state title in the last 10 seasons and 20th since the establishment of the non-public state-wide tournament in 1993.

But the Wildcats and veteran coach Paul Sacco have never been through a season like this one.

"I just hope we're ready to play and we finish playing the way we're capable of playing," Sacco said the other day before a workout at the Wildcats' little practice field off Peach Street in Hammonton.

When the season started, St. Joseph was coming off a 12-0 run to the No. 1 spot in the Inquirer Top 25 in 2017. The Wildcats had the look of one of the best teams in program history, if not the best.

In the third game, on the night of Sept. 14, St. Joseph beat fellow Non-Public power St. Augustine, 30-8, on the Hermits' field in Richland.

St. Augustine coach Pete Lancetta — who has followed St. Joseph closely since his days as a player for the Wildcats in the late 1970s and through 26 seasons as head coach at crosstown rival Hammonton — stood at midfield after that game and said he believed he had just watched the best team in St. Joseph history.

"Wow," Lancetta said.

Two weeks later, Haddonfield arrived at Bill Bendig Stadium and stunned St. Joseph by a 22-15 score.

"When we came into this year, especially us seniors, we were like, 'Oh, we're the best team out here, nobody is going to beat us,' " said St. Joseph senior guard/linebacker Bobby Hyndman. "And then once somebody actually challenges you and like when we played Haddonfield and it was a great game and all, but it makes you really think.

"You're like, 'Wow, we have to keep working to stay focused on our goal because if you don't then things can go real bad.' "

Ten days after the Haddonfield loss, Sacco and two players were suspended by the school for two games after the emergence of a pregame video that was posted on social media in which St. Joseph athletes were shown taunting Haddonfield players and using inappropriate language.

Three days after that, St. Joseph lost, 51-0, to West Deptford in a home game that marked the program's most lopsided setback since 1969.

"That was definitely a rough point, especially for coach and the players," Hyndman said. "But we knew that as a team and as seniors especially we were going to come together and complete the mission.

"Even with everything that happened, we were confident that we'd come back strong and win those games."

St. Joseph bounced back from the West Deptford game to win four in a row, including a 28-14 victory over Holy Spirit on Oct. 26 on the Spartans' field, a rainy night that marked Sacco's return to the sideline and the two players' return to the lineup.

The teams will meet again Friday night in the home stadium of the NFL's Giants and Jets as part of the second weekend of the NJSIAA's new "bowl season" format that features both Non-Public state finals and super-sectionals between public-school teams.

St. Joseph and Holy Spirit are old rivals, meeting regularly in old Cape-Atlantic League play as well as current West Jersey Football League competition. But this game will mark the first time the teams have clashed in the state championship game.

"It's a great rivalry," Quarshie said. "We have respect for them, they have respect for us."

Hyndman said the stakes have never been higher for both teams' seniors, since it's both a state final and the last game of each athlete's football career.

"Both teams want it a lot," Hyndman said. "They're going to come as hard as they can and we're going to have to play our best game to beat them."

St. Joseph features junior all-purpose back Jada Byers, who has scored 32 touchdowns, as well as a strong and seasoned offensive line led by Quarshie and Hyndman as well as fellow seniors Brad Lomax, Tucker Monico, and Sean Morris.

Lomax, with 26 tackles for losses as an end, and Hyndman, with 103 tackles as a linebacker, lead the St. Joseph defense.

Holy Spirit junior running back Elijah Gray has rushed for 1,223 yards and 15 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Ryan Yost has passed for 1,739 yards and 19 touchdowns, while junior tight end Isaiah Gerena has 31 catches for 379 yards and two scores.

Senior linebacker Azim Baker-Coley, who has 69 tackles, and senior lineman Malachi Valentine, who has 8 1/2 sacks, lead the Holy Spirit defense.

"They gave us a great game this year, which was pretty scary at first, then we came back," Hyndman said. "I think it's going to be a great game because it's not just a regular-season game, it's a championship."

The Wildcats are used to celebrating state championships on neutral fields. They've won a few at Rowan University, including last season, when they beat Mater Dei, 30-14, to finish a perfect season with a 12-0 record.

Hyndman said a victory Friday night would carry extra significance because the Wildcats will have endured unforeseen circumstances to emerge with another piece of hardware for the crowded trophy case.

This won't just be another state title for St. Joseph, the senior standout said.

This one will be different.

"What we went through, it brought out the character in a lot of our players and our coaches," Hyndman said. "I think it was a good thing for us and a good learning experience, not just for us as football players but for everyone going on in life."