Destined for Greatness: QB Alex Brown and a lights-out defensive performance lead Red Bank Catholic to the Non-Public B state title
EAST RUTHERFORD – Do you believe in destiny? Red Bank Catholic’s football team does. But it also believes in preparation, execution, toughness, and determination. Those traits can take a team a long way, and on Friday night it all came together to deliver the Caseys a state championship.
Senior quarterback Alex Brown completed his emotional playoff run by throwing a touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Najiah Rahman and also rushing for a touchdown while the RBC defense put together a masterpiece as the Caseys defeated DePaul, 13-8, to capture the 2021 NJSIAA Non-Public B state championship.
RBC saved its best for last under the bright lights of MetLife Stadium, and before the clock struck midnight a new year was being added to the program’s championship banner. The state title is the fourth for RBC since the NJSIAA playoffs began in 1974 and its third since 2014.
“It’s absolutely surreal,” said senior two-way standout Alex Bauman. “Just taking in everything before the game, playing at MetLife, winning a state championship. This is the best it can be.”
“We did it for our families, we did it for our coaches, we did it for our fans, we did it for everyone,” Brown said. “I love this team so much.”
DePaul, which entered the game ranked No. 3 in New Jersey and as the top seed in the bracket, had a respectable 278 yards of offense and a very solid 197 yards rushing, but RBC held the Spartans to only one touchdown. Their other points came on a blocked punt that went out of the end zone for a safety. The Caseys yielded yards but came up with several clutch plays, including an interception by junior Sabino Portella, a sack/forced fumble by junior Christian Ungemah, two tackles for loss by junior linebacker Michael Palmieri, and tackles for loss by Bauman and senior defensive tackles Ashton Mejias. Sophomore linebacker Davin Brewton also had a great game and finished, unofficially, with 18 tackles.
On the money downs, RBC was superb in holding DePaul to just 3 of 12 on third-down conversions and 2-for-6 on fourth-down conversions.
“A huge team effort,” Portella said. “There wasn’t one person on this team who didn’t think we could hang with them. They always talk about the Big North but our coaches always tell us everyone puts on a jersey just the same in the north, central, Shore, or south, and we proved it.”
“Our defensive staff, (defensive coordinator) Kevin Gaul, they did a great job,” said RBC head coach Mike Lange. “You saw a lot of different personnel, a lot of coverage changes. This was a collective effort. There were so many guys who made plays and that’s what we preach.”
“We knew we had to step up defensively and we did just that,” Bauman said.
For Brown, Friday’s state championship cemented his high school legacy and capped an incredible three-game performance in the wake of a family tragedy. The night before the Caseys’ playoff opener, Brown’s mother, Michelle, passed away after a 15-year battle with breast cancer. He responded the next night with a viral eight-touchdown performance to power RBC to a win over Morris Catholic. He ran for two touchdowns in a semifinal victory over St. Joseph (Hammonton) and then added two more touchdowns in the biggest game of his life on the home field of his favorite NFL team. He was also in on defense for the final play and helped to bat down DePaul’s last-second Hail Mary attempt. Three games, 12 touchdowns, and a state championship, all while grieving the loss of his mother. He was awe-inspiring.
“I pray to her before every game and obviously she was with us on this ride because this is the craziest journey I’ve ever been a part of,” Brown said. “This is destiny. This is what football is meant for. I love this sport. I love this team. I believe my mom was the one guiding us. I’m at a loss for words.”
DePaul featured a stout defense that had allowed just 7.7 points per game through its first 11 games, but RBC sent a message by driving 71 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead on the opening drive of the game. Portella had an 11-yard run, Brown had runs of 5 and 11 yards to move the ball into DePaul territory and then connected with Bauman over the middle for another 10 yards. After an incomplete pass and a short gain brought up third-and-9, Brown connected with Rahman for a 33-yard touchdown to put the Caseys on the board.
DePaul hit runs of 15 yards by Tyler Brown and 19 yards by Jadin Johnson on its first two offensive plays to quickly move into RBC territory but the Caseys buckled down from there to force a punt. The kick was downed at the 5-yard line, however, and that led to DePaul’s first points of the game. Junior running back Torin Harmon was dropped for a three-yard loss on third-and-1 to force the Caseys to punt from their own 11-yard line. That’s when Jeremy Lopez surged through the protection to block the punt and send it careening out of the end zone for a safety, cutting RBC’s lead to 7-2.
DePaul received the ensuing free kick and advanced to its own 47-yard line, and it wasn’t long before the Spartans were threatening inside RBC’s 30-yard line. On third-and-8, RBC sniffed out a screen pass for only a 1-yard gain and on fourth down, Ungemah sacked DePaul’s AJ Rodriguez from behind, forced a fumble, and the Caseys took over on downs.
Later in the second quarter, Portella intercepted Rodriguez and returned it to the DePaul 27-yard line. The Spartans’ defense rose up, however, and used sacks on second and third downs to force RBC to pooch punt from the 35-yard line. DePaul gained one first down before punting but RBC couldn’t do anything with the great field position and once again had to quick kick on fourth down. The teams traded punts one more time before halftime arrived with the Caseys holding a 7-2 lead.
The message at the break was simple.
“The conversation was, win the half, win the game,” Portella said. “Our defense was locked in and we had to keep the foot on the pedal.”
Whatever adjustments DePaul made at halftime worked because its offense came out on the first drive of the third quarter and marched 71 yards across eight plays, taking an 8-7 lead on an 11-yard touchdown run by Tyler Brown. The Spartans went for the 2-point conversion but the pass failed to cross the goal line when Bauman stopped a shovel pass two yards short of the end zone.
Next came a drive that defined the game and RBC’s season. The Caseys didn’t trail for long, going 71 yards in 14 plays and scoring on Brown’s 2-yard touchdown run to re-take the lead at 13-8. The drive actually hit a roadblock early when Brown was tackled for a two-yard loss on 3rd-and-1 from the 38-yard line, but the Caseys decided to use a fake punt on fourth down and Portella took the snap instead and lofted a pass for senior Joe Diorio, who took it 12 yards to covert the 4th-and-3.
“It was a momentum swing and I felt at the time we had to roll the dice a bit,” Lange said. “We were playing good defense and of course there’s a risk-reward to it, but I just thought it was the right time to do.”
It worked, and it certainly gave RBC a spark on its way to the end zone for what would hold up as the game-winning touchdown. Brown followed the conversion with a 22-yard run to the DePaul 30-yard line and from there he, Portella, and senior running back Rajahn Cooper took turns carrying the ball down inside the DePaul 10-yard line. A late-hit penalty pushed the ball to the 5-yard line and on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Brown made a nifty move in the backfield to find the end zone for a touchdown. RBC went for the 2-point conversion but Brown’s pass was incomplete, leaving the score 13-8 with 2:11 left in the third quarter.
“They didn’t have an answer for me as a runner,” said Brown, who ran for 69 yards but finished with a net of 43 because of lost yardage on sacks. “(On the TD) I saw 5 (Q’Yaeir Price) was going left and then the linebacker took a step to that side so I juked and cut it back.”
“We didn’t lose a step at all,” Bauman said. “They came out in the second half and gave us a shot but we took it and fired it right back.”
The Caseys' offense had given the team the lead once again. Now it was on the defense, and they weren’t about to give it away. DePaul started its next drive at its own 20-yard line and methodically moved to the 50-yard line, but on third down RBC forced an incomplete pass and on fourth down the Caseys were not fooled by a reverse and Palmieri dropped wide receiver Marshawn Ferguson for an 8-yard loss that turned the ball over on downs with 10:02 on the clock.
RBC took over at the DePaul 42-yard line and was able to move to the 25, but the Spartans forced incompletions on third and fourth downs to take over with 7:37 left. Once again, the RBC defense came up with clutch plays. DePaul pushed the ball to midfield but on first down, Bauman tackled Tyler Brown for a 3-yard loss. After a short gain on second down and an incomplete pass on third down, Ungemah got pressure on fourth-and-10 and forced quarterback Patrick Grusser to scramble. He was tackled after gaining just two yards to give RBC the ball back with 5:24 to play.
The Caseys chewed some time off the clock but ended up punting from the DePaul 39-yard line with 2:13 left in the game. DePaul immediately worked its way into RBC territory on a 29-yard catch by Ferguson. Gains of six and 10 yards put the ball at the RBC 29-yard line where Grusser had his first-down pass batted up in the air by Bauman and nearly intercepted. Grusser was able to catch his own pass but it went for a 5-yard loss. Small gains on the next two downs brought up 4th-and-11 with seven seconds left, time for nothing else but a desperation heave to the end zone. When it hit the turf and all zeros showed on the clock, the celebration began. The Caseys were state champions once again.
“Before the season back in June we knew our No. 1 goal this season was to come here and win this state championship,” Bauman said. “We had to take it one game at a time but that overall goal was to win this. Every time we won we would check another box off our to-do list. This was the last one.”
“There were so many challenges in this game, back and forth, and our whole thing with the kids was to empty the tank and leave it all out there, and that’s what you saw tonight,” Lange said. “And keeping composure. This is a big stage and I’m so proud of them that in those spots they did that.”
State championship teams live forever and this Red Bank Catholic team will occupy a special place in program lore. The talent was always there, certainly, but talent alone does not win championships. This one took grit and guile and guts to attain glory.
“I can’t really put it into words,” Brown said. “I love this moment and I’m going to enjoy every second of it.”
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Red Bank Catholic vs. DePaul - NJSIAA Non-Public B State Championship Game
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