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RED BANK – Through all the ups and downs, both on the field and off, that Donovan Catholic’s football team has been through during this 2021 season, the Griffins still found themselves right where they wanted to be heading up to Count Basie Field on Friday night. 

That was the prevailing conversation all week between head coach Dan Curcione and his players, that of opportunity and seizing the moment. Regardless of everything that happened prior to Week 9, Donovan Catholic had a chance to take on the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference and make their statement. 

Mission accomplished. 

Senior running back Nunes Bukula IV ran for a game-high 156 yards and two touchdowns and the Donovan Catholic defense held down a high-powered Red Bank Catholic offense to lead the No. 3 Griffins to a thorough 28-7 victory over the formerly-undefeated Caseys. Senior quarterback Jalin Butler ran for 75 yards and a touchdown and senior wide receiver Kyree Drake also ran for a touchdown. 

Defensively, the Griffins kept RBC off the scoreboard until the 3:15 mark of the fourth quarter by mostly bottling up a top-notch rushing attack and coming through with timely defensive stops, including three fourth-down stops to turn the ball over on downs. Donovan also capitalized on a pair of special teams miscues by the Caseys on punts, which led to a pair of touchdowns by the Griffins in the first half. 

“We’ve faced a lot this year and we were really looking forward to the (Shore Conference) pods to have a chance to get back to the championship game,” said senior two-way lineman Nico Ippolito. “It is what it is (with no pod format this year) but we came together as a group and when we saw those two new games and who we were playing, we knew it was going to be a great game. They’re a great team and I have much respect for them, but we came out and did our job and the scoreboard showed that.” 

“Anytime you can play an undefeated team, a team as good and well-coached as RBC, you welcome that challenge,” Curcione said. “That’s what playing the game is all about. We look forward to games like this.” 

Now, with the regular season complete, the debate as to who is the No. 1 team in the Shore Conference rages on. Donovan is 8-1 on the field with a 14-0 loss to Rumson-Fair Haven and a 28-7 win over Red Bank Catholic. Rumson (7-1) beat Donovan but lost to RBC, 21-14. In all three games involving the three programs, the winning team was clearly the better team that given day. It will not be an easy decision for those tasked with the choice. The Griffins made their case on Friday night that they are as good as any team in the Shore Conference. 

“Absolutely,” Curcione said. “And I think you saw that today.” 

“This is the best we could get without the pods and this was the next best thing,” said senior defensive end/tight end Levi Wilkins. “We proved ourselves.” 

The driving rain and fierce winds of the nor’easter-like storm that hit the Jersey Shore on Friday night wreaked havoc on games from Holmdel to Barnegat. It was especially a factor in the first half and reared its head on the first possession of the game. RBC went back to punt on fourth-and-7 from the 28 and the snap skipped past Caseys’ punter Jake Jacobson. Donovan tackled him at the 2-yard line and on the next play Butler found the end zone. He then ran in the 2-point conversion for a quick 8-0 lead. 

“100 percent, the weather played a factor for both of us and we said all week that the team that holds onto the ball more was going to come out of here with a victory,” Ippolito said. 

Ironically, Donovan fumbled six times and lost three of them and Red Bank Catholic actually never lost a fumble, but the Caseys’ trouble on two first-half punts helped do them in.  

The teams traded punts after Donovan’s touchdown and RBC got the ball back at its own 22 late in the first quarter. The drive stalled at the 40 and Jacobson came on to punt, but RBC got the ball right back when Donovan muffed the return and Christian Ungemah scooped it up and raced toward the end zone. By rule, a muffed punt cannot be advanced so RBC had its possession extended and now had the ball at the Donovan Catholic 30. 

A holding penalty on first down pushed the Caseys back but a third-down conversion on a 12-yard pass from senior quarterback Alex Brown to senior wide receiver Joe Diorio moved the chains to the DC 17-yard line. A sack by Wilkins on first down resulted in a six-yard loss but strong runs by junior running back Sabino Portella and senior running back Rajahn Cooper brought up fourth-and-two from the 9-yard line. That’s when Donovan sophomore outside linebacker Hunter Johnson made one of the best plays all night, shedding a block and bringing down Cooper with one hand for a one-yard loss that turned the ball over on downs. 

Donovan went three-and-out and punted back to RBC, which took over at its own 38-yard line. The Caseys moved to the Donovan 43 but had to punt on fourth-and-seven. Once again there was trouble on the snap and Jacobson was tackled for a 13-yard loss that gave the Griffins the ball at the RBC 44-yard line. 

Bukula started to get going with an 11-yard run on first down and a nine-yard run on second down to put the ball at the 24-yard line. Two straight runs by Butler moved the ball to the 13-yard line where Drake took a handoff on a jet sweep, turned the corner, and leaped into the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead after the extra point missed its mark with 1:08 left in the first half. 

The third quarter went by without any scoring but was not lacking for action. Donovan drove to the RBC 20-yard line on the first series of the second half, but on a fourth-and-1 the Griffins had trouble at the mesh point, fumbled, and RBC’s Jaidin Haynes pounced on the loose ball. The Caseys then tried a fake punt on fourth-and-five from their own 24-yard line but were stopped after a gain of only one yard. The door appeared open for Donovan to take a commanding lead, but on the second play of its drive Cooper forced a fumble and Haynes again jumped on the ball to give RBC possession.  

Each team punted on the following two possessions and RBC’s offense returned to the field at the Donovan 47-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Sacks on first and third downs brought up a fourth-and-9 and RBC was initially stopped short on a 7-yard reception over the middle by Portella, but a personal foul for a hit on a defenseless receiver gave the Caseys a first down at the Donovan 25. Once again, however, the Griffins’ defense rose to the occasion to force a turnover on downs at the 20-yard line with 8:48 left in the game. 

Donovan put the game away on the following series when Butler broke free for a 51-yard gain down to the Red Bank Catholic 16-yard line and three plays later Bukula found room on a 7-yard touchdown run on third-and-one to make it 21-0 with 5:31 on the clock. 

Red Bank Catholic broke up the shutout when Brown connected with junior Robert Stolfa for a 48-yard touchdown pass with 3:03 left. Donovan recovered the ensuing onside kick at its own 48-yard line and apropos of the resilience the Griffins showed throughout the season and on Friday night, Bukula iced one of the biggest victories in program history with a tremendous 52-yard touchdown run down the visiting sideline.  

A sack by sophomore JJ Correa on the final play of the game completed the 28-7 statement victory for the Griffins. In a game where passing was difficult, to say the least, it was all about which group of linemen could impose their will. It was strength on strength, and the Griffins came out on top. 

“I was saying it all week, I love me a rain game as a nose guard and a tackle, it’s a great time,” Ippolito said. “We came out here and did our thing.” 

“It was definitely a heart thing,” Wilkins said. “We wanted it more than they did and I think that was obvious.” 

“It wasn’t keying on one guy because they have a lot of really good guys,” Curcione said about his defense, specifically. “It was about playing fundamentally sound football up front and not letting their size and strength beat us. We really stressed being able to play flat along the line and using our hands. Our guys up front had to make some plays, not just be block eaters. 

“We had to play tough and physical this week. Guys like Taz McNair and Levi and Nico really rose to the challenge. And we have a good group of young guys we rotate in with Louis DiBiase, Tommy Meehan, Hunter Johnson. We had a lot of guys step up.” 

The news that came out on Monday, Sept. 27 now seems like a distant memory. The Griffins were coming off a dominant 35-0 win over Colts Neck to improve to 3-1 when the NJSIAA ruled the team had to forfeit those three wins due to the use of an ineligible player. It was shown to be an administrative error that allowed a backup underclassman player to see the field, but the damage was done. The Griffins were now 0-4 even if the on-field results said otherwise.  

Instead of letting the negative news derail their season, the Griffins rallied around the adversity and used it as motivation. Five straight wins later, including victories over the No. 1, No. 5 and No. 8 teams in the Shore, Donovan has a rightful claim as the best team in the Shore Conference. 

“I actually think that turned around our season completely,” Wilkins said. “It gave us a chip on our shoulder. It gave us fuel every week. It was something to be mad about, something to give us energy.” 

“We have a chip on our shoulder, most definitely,” Ippolito said. “After the forfeits it mattered even more what we did and how we did it. Everything had to be crisp. We came ready to work. We came together.” 

“Without a doubt the seniors led the way after that,” Curcione said. “They didn’t want it to affect them going forward and how they were going to be viewed as a team. Anger could probably be used as one of their emotions but it was their character that stood out. For them to step up and not let things like that bot them, man, I’m proud to be their coach.” 

 

Box Score 

No. 3 Donovan Catholic 28, No. 1 Red Bank Catholic 7 

 

 Donovan Catholic Red Bank Catholic 
First downs 12 9 
Rushes-yards 38-249 50-130 
Passing 2-2-0 4-13-0 
Passing yards 32 74 
Fumbles-lost 6-3 1-0 
Penalties-yards 4-30 4-32 

 

 1 2 3 4 F 
Donovan Catholic (5-4, 8-1 on the field) 8 6 0 14 28 
Red Bank Catholic (8-1) 0 0 0 7 7 

 

 

Scoring Summary 

DC – Jalin Butler 2-yard run (Jalin Butler run) 

DC – Kyree Drake 13-yard run (kick failed) 

DC – Nunes Bukula IV 7-yard run (Gavin Nguyen kick) 

RBC – Robert Stolfa 48-yard pass from Alex Brown (Jake Jacobson kick) 

DC – Nunes Bukula IV 52-yard run (Gavin Nguyen kick) 

 

Individual Statistics 

RUSHING – DC: Nunes Bukula IV 21-156, Jalin Butler 14-75, Kyree Drake 3-18; RBC: Sabino Portella 19-72, Alex Brown 15-59, Rajahn Cooper 8-26, Torin Harmon 6-12, Team 2-(-39). 

PASSING – DC: Jalin Butler 2-2-0 32; RBC: Alex Brown 4-13-0 74 

RECEIVING – DC: Dante Vernieri 2-32; RBC: Robert Stolfa 1-48, Joe Diorio 1-12, Najih Rahman 1-7, Sabino Portella 1-7. 

 

 

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