• Dan Russoman

St. Joe falls at Red Bank Catholic

Wildcats ousted from Non-Public B playoffs


Cohl Mercado looks for running room early in St. Joseph’s Non-Public B semifinal game at Red Bank Catholic last week. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

RED BANK—Two drives.


That’s what was on the mind of St. Joseph Academy football coach Paul Sacco immediately after his Wildcats were ousted from the Non-Public B playoffs last week, losing to host Red Bank Catholic (RBC) 21-10 at Count Basie Field.


Those two drives came in the second half, and allowed the Caseys to rally for a win that sends them into this weekend’s state title game against DePaul Catholic at MetLife Stadium.


“Two drives. That’s all it was. We gave them [Red Bank Catholic] a short field twice and they made us pay,” Sacco said.


Last week’s game was expected to be a shootout between two of the state’s top offensive teams, but it instead proved to be a tight, defensive battle that wasn’t decided until midway through the fourth quarter.


“[St. Joseph] is a great program and we knew they weren’t going to lay down,” Red Bank Catholic coach Mike Lange said.


Both team’s defenses played well early in the game. Red Bank Catholic stopped St. Joe’s first drive and the Wildcats returned the favor the first time the Caseys had the ball. Neither team was able to score until midway through the second quarter when St. Joseph turned to its explosive wideout Jahmeer Cartagena.


Taking over at its own 45-yard line after a RBC drive stalled, St. Joe quickly moved into Caseys’ territory. A personal foul penalty put the Wildcats in a third-and-23 situation, and Sacco called for an option pass to try to break a big play.


Senior running back Cohl Mercado took a handoff, raced toward the left side and pulled up, lofting a pass into the hands of Cartagena, who cut back to the middle of the field, broke a tackle, slipped past a few more defenders and raced into the end zone for a 59-yard touchdown that put the Wildcats up 7-0.


“When the ball touched my hands I knew I had to score. I cut back and saw the opening,” Cartagena said.


“It was a great pass by Cohl [Mercado] and Cartagena made a great play. That was a big spark for us,” Sacco said.


Trailing for just the second time this season, Red Bank Catholic immediately answered back. A 45-yard kickoff return by Torin Harmon set the Caseys up at midfield and they quickly drove for a score that tied the game.


Quarterback Alex Brown hit Emanuel Ross for a 17-yard pass, then connected with Robert Stolfa on a 15-yard gain that set up Rajahn Cooper’s 4-yard touchdown run.


“We score and our kid [kicker Trevin DelGozzo] send the kickoff to the 5-yard line, but we’re jogging in our coverage and the kid [Harmon] has a huge return,” Sacco said.


“We have to pin them back there,” he said.


Red Bank Catholic’s score came with just 1:19 left in the half. With just a few seconds left before the break, St. Joe managed a scoring drive of its own.


A short kick gave the Wildcats possession at their own 40-yard line. Mercado began the drive with a 15-yard run and on first down at the Caseys’ 33, he broke free for a 24-yard scamper that set up a 26-yard DelGozzo field goal and a 10-7 halftime lead for the Wildcats.


“We came back with that field goal and had some momentum, but we couldn’t keep it going,” Sacco said.


One of the reasons St. Joseph’s momentum was stopped was Red Bank Catholic’s defense. Led by linebackers Cooper and Sabino Portella and defensive end Alex Bauman, the Caseys put constant pressure on St. Joe quarterback Ja’son Prevard and limited the Wildcats ability to run up the middle.


“They were all over Ja’son [Prevard]. Defensively, they get after it. There were some things that we had to go to [offensively] and we did, and they took the passing game away completely. We went to the run game, and it was good for a while, but you can only stay with that for so long,” Sacco said.


St. Joe’s first possession of the second half began at its own 19-yard line and the Wildcats proceeded to hurt themselves with three costly penalties. A hold on first down was followed by a delay of game flag and a false start later in the drive, forcing the Wildcats to punt out of their own end zone.


Red Bank Catholic started its next drive at the St. Joe 41 and needed just seven plays to take the lead.


“Penalties have been an issue for us all season. I thought the second half, the one drive, we missed a couple of blocks and a few penalties hurt us,” Sacco said.


Keeping the ball on the ground, RBC moved downfield behind Harmon and Brown, who capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run.


“You can’t make mistakes like that in a big game. This is a big game. It’s a showcase game and you’re playing a team that’s got a gigantic offensive line, they’re outstanding on defense, the quarterback is outstanding, the two running backs they flip-flop in and out are just workhorses and they’ve got as tight end that’s the best around. The wide receivers are excellent. We shortened the field for them twice and they made us pay,” Sacco said.


The teams then traded punts before Red Bank Catholic began a drive early in the fourth quarter at its own 42-yard line. This time it was a 32-yard pass from Brown to Ross that set up Brown’s 7-yard touchdown run that put the Caseys up 21-10 with 10:08 left in the game.


“We felt that our depth and some of our balance would put them off guard and wear them down a little bit, and I think that’s what happened in the second half,” Lange said.


St. Joe drove to the RBC 27 before stalling on a fourth-down incompletion. After a Caseys’ punt, the Wildcats last drive ended with an interception with 2:54 remaining.


“Those two drives beat us. A good team like that [Red Bank Catholic], running that no-buddle with the receivers they have, we gave them a short field and they made us pay for it. They’re big, they have a lot of good players and are just a great team,” Sacco said.


The loss dropped the Wildcats to 9-3 this season. St. Joe visits Winslow on November 23 at 6 p.m. to wrap up the season.


“This one was tough, but now we have to go home, watch the film, get back to work tomorrow and with two days to get ready, hopefully close out the season with a win,” Sacco said.