By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
UNION — Hope turned to heartache in the span of just 12 seconds on Saturday afternoon at Kean University’s Alumni Field.
Holy Spirit was hoping to get the Non-Public Group 2 championship game into overtime tied at 20. With momentum — and one of the best kickers in the state — Spartans coach A.J. Russo like his team’s chances if it could make one more defensive stop. But Mater Dei pulled a rabbit out of its hat, scoring on a 50-yard hook-and-lateral play to win the state championship, 26-20, in dramatic fashion.
The Spartans (9-3) clawed their way back from a 20-6 halftime deficit, got several big plays to get back into the game in the second half and eventually tie it, but the Seraphs came up with a heart-pumping play with just 15 seconds remaining. Quarterback George Pearson hit Kyle Devaney on a 10-yard out pattern on the right side, Devaney cut back toward the middle and pitched the ball to Eddie Lewis, who out-ran the Holy Spirit defense and into the end zone with just three seconds left. Holy Spirit tried several laterals on the ensuing kickoff, but for naught, and the Seraphs capped a 12-0 season in thrilling fashion.
“We were thinking they might run that play, we just weren’t able to stop it,” Russo said. “We were hoping to get it into overtime. We had momentum going and I would have liked our chances, but the football gods didn’t have it planned that way.”
“We just knew we could beat them, honestly. It was the same situation against Delsea — they were beating us at halftime and we just came out more confident knowing what we had to fix. It was the same in this game, but you can’t start playing in the second half, so that’s what cost us the ball game. If we would have played (the whole game) like we did in the second half, we probably would have won by 20,” said senior running back Reggie Jean-Charles, who finished with 156 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. “It doesn’t feel good at all. This is my family. We sacrifice so much for each other, and now it’s over and we will never play together again. I’m proud of my guys. It’s over with now and it’s something we can’t fix now, we just can’t get started that late.”
Holy Spirit was forced to punt on its opening possession, and on Mater Dei’s first play from scrimmage, Lewis took a short pass from Pearson and raced down the right sideline for a 67-yard touchdown. Two minutes into the game, the Seraphs had a 7-0 lead. Later in the first quarter, Pearson hooked up with tight end Izaiah Henderson for an 18-yard touchdown that pushed the Seraphs’ lead to 13-0. The game could have become a blowout at that point, but Spirit got things going behind Jean-Charles, who plowed his way in from eight yards out with 8:18 left in the first half, capping a long drive that shaved the lead to 13-6.
“The first play, they caught us a little bit and their playmaker made a play. The second half it was the kids, they came out and played hard, and played like we knew they would. They came back and gave us an opportunity at the end. We could have (folded early) but we know the type of kids we have at Holy Spirit, and they’re not the type of kids who will fold. We were very confident they would come back strong in the second half. They relaxed, calmed down and did what they had to do. They played well,” Russo said. “(Reggie) ran the ball hard and got us going with that second quarter touchdown. He’s a good kid and a good football player. We’re going to miss him.”
Pearson, who finished 11-of-19 for 214 yards and three touchdowns, made another big play in the waning seconds of the first half, hooking up with Marvin Pierre for a 26-yard touchdown on a fourth-down play with 1:15 left that gave Mater Dei a 20-6 halftime lead.
But Holy Spirit rallied in the second half behind its defense, like it has all year long. Jean-Charles’ 11-yard scoring run cut the deficit to 20-13, and with 9:23 left, linebacker Mason Murphy stripped Pearson of the ball and defensive end James Marcheski scooped it up and bolted 35 yards into the end zone to tie the game, 20-20. Cade Antonucci lofted a high, short kick on the ensuing kickoff, and Brown recovered it, setting Spirit up at the Mater Dei 30-yard line. But the Seraphs’ defense clamped down when it had to, stopping the Spartans on Holy Spirit’s final three possessions.
“Last year we were 4-6 and we lost in the first round (of the playoffs), so it’s great to see the process is still going up even though we lost,” Jean-Charles said.
“Those 15 seniors we have, they set the tone for the future for us. They are the guys who start the legacy. We got back here to a state championship this year, so everything as we move forward, those guys will be remembered for what they did and getting us back to where we need to be. So, they have to keep their heads held high. They are all great kids. They are all going to be successful as they move on to college, and they’ll all do great things in life. So, they have to understand that as well. There’s always adversity in life, you overcome that and move on,” Russo said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN