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TOMS RIVER - Ryan Clark appreciates every single win he and his Donovan Catholic teammates can get. Rewind to his freshman year and it is not hard to understand why: Clark began his high school career as part of a Griffins team that went 0-10.

Four years after finishing the 2016 season without a win, Clark and the fourth-seeded Griffins are heading to the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III semifinals after handling No. 5 St. John Vianney, 35-14, for the program's first state playoff win since 1992 and just its second ever.

"This group buys in," said coach Dan Curcione, who took over the Donovan Catholic program ahead of the 2017 season after leading Wall to a South Jersey Group IV title in 2016. "They have turned it into a 365-day-a-year program and that's through their hard work, their guts and their determination."

"There is nothing worse than going 0-10," Clark said. "That was a big scar going forward but with coach Curcione coming in, he really made that scar fade.

Donovan Catholic senior Ryan Clark. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

"I never thought I'd be in this position. It has been a struggle each year but we have always had faith. Coach Curcione always believed in us and I can't believe how it's paid off."

Given its superior seed and dominant performance throughout most of the season, Friday represented a challenge for a Griffins team that had not played the same rough-and-tumble regular-season schedule that St. John Vianney had.

 

"Every team has their players, but SJV had a lot more than what we were used to seeing," Clark said. "We expected to have a do fight with them and we were really amped up for the challenge."

By the middle of the third quarter, it was Donovan Catholic that had the look of the more battle-tested team, particularly in the trenches. The Griffins racked up 358 yards on the ground while holding St. John Vianney to 23, including less than one yard per carry.

"We pride ourselves on running the ball and stopping the run," Curcione said. "This was a different defensive game for us with the way they like to throw the ball, but they guys up front really responded well. They are a heck of a group."

Clark led the rushing attack with 158 yards on 13 attempts, including a pair of touchdown runs. The senior signal-caller broke free for three runs of 30 yards or more, including his 34-yard touchdown run that gave Donovan Catholic the lead for good, 14-7, with 10:29 left in the second quarter.

Clark later added a 17-yard touchdown run on the next Donovan Catholic drive to make the score 21-7. He also turned in a 30-yard run on Donovan Catholic's first scoring drive, found sophomore Levi Wilkins for a 34-yard pass to set up its fourth score, and carried a pair of defenders to finish off a 30-yard run that set up the fifth and final Griffins touchdown.

"He is an all-time player here at Donovan," Curcione said of his quarterback. "He took the next step tonight to cement his legacy in winning a playoff game. That means a lot. He is only the second quarterback in school history to do that so that's a big deal."

Donovan Catholic forced a St. John Vianney punt to open the game and Clark's 30-yard run jump-started his team's first drive and set the Griffins up on the Lancers 35. On 3rd-and-2 from the 17, Clark handed to junior James Bivins on a sweep to the left and Bivins cut it up field for the game's first touchdown.

Wilkins hauled in Clark's second of two completions in the game during the first drive of the second half and muscled his way to the Vianney four yard-line. Donovan Catholic rushed to the line and senior Nasir Calhoun finished off the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.

After Clark dragged a pair of Lancers defenders to the two yard-line on his final big run of the day, Calhoun scored again - this time from two yards out to extend the Donovan Catholic lead to 35-7 with 5:25 left in the third quarter.

Calhoun carried the ball a game-high 21 times for 75 yards while Bivins raced for 89 yards on only seven carries to add to the Griffins ground excellence.

Donovan Catholic senior Nasir Calhoun. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

The Donovan Catholic defense also excelled, neutralizing senior tailback Kavon Chambers and the Vianney ground game. Chambers carried only seven times for 29 yards while Duell was harassed in the pocket and finished with negative rushing yardage by the end of the game.

"They have a hell of a group of skill players and a hell of a quarterback," Curcione said of St. John Vianney. "We have gotten used to shutting teams out but we don't play teams with the skill caliber that this team had, so we just had to stick to the plan, stick with each other and get through it, because they are going to put some points up."

Duell hit senior receiver Zarrin Stephens for both of St. John Vianney's touchdowns, including a 32-yarder that tied the game at 7-7 late in the first quarter. The second of the two connections capped the scoring in the fourth quarter, with Stephens making a contested catch in the back right corner of the end zone and tapping his foot down to execute the high-difficulty grab.

Stephens's catches were just window-dressing for Vianney against a dominant Donovan Catholic team that hopes it is all tuned up to play top-seeded DePaul in the sectional semifinal round next week.

"We are leaving everything out there for each other," Clark said. "However long we take this, this is a brotherhood and it's going to stay that way beyond this season. That's what has gotten us here and that's what will take us where we want to go."

 

Box Score

Donovan Catholic 35, St. John Vianney 14

SJVDonovan
First Downs1020
Rushes-Yards25-2345-358
Passing11-22-02-3-1
Passing Yards15438
Fumbles-Lost1-01-0
Penalties-Yards8-706-70

 

1234F
SJV (4-5)700714
Donovan Cath (9-1)71414035

 

Scoring Summary

DC - James Bivins 17-yard run (Keaon Torres kick)

SJV - Zarrin Stephens 32-yard pass from C.J. Duell (Mason Shenk kick)

DC - Ryan Clark 34-yard run (Keaon Torres kick)

DC - Ryan Clark 17-yard run (Keaon Torres kick)

DC - Nasir Calhoun 4-yard run (Keaon Torres kick)

DC - Nasir Calhoun 2-yard run (Keaon Torres kick)

SJV - Zarrin Stephens 23-yard pass from C.J. Duell (Mason Shenk kick)

 

Individual Stats

Rushing - SJV: Kavon Chambers 7-29, C.J. Duell 18-(-6); DC: Ryan Clark 13-158, James Bivins 7-89, Nasir Calhoun 21-75, Damian Johnson 3-28, Evyn Menta 1-8

Passing - SJV: C.J. Duell 11-22-0 154; DC: Ryan Clark 2-3-1 138

Receiving - SJV: Zarrin Stephens 5-88, Jayden Bellamy 3-31, Warren Griffith 1-17, Kavon Chambers 1-13, Josh East 1-5; DC: Levi Wilkins 1-34, Damian Johnson 1-4

Interceptions-Return Yards - SJV: Robert Lamb 1-1

 

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