Second-half surge leads Red Bank Catholic past Holy Spirit in Non-Public B semifinals
RED BANK -- The home fans had barely settled into their seats on a frigid - and later snowy - night at Count Basie Field when Red Bank Catholic stunningly found itself trailing by two touchdowns in the state semifinals. Panic? Not one bit.
"Our team has battled through adversity before and we knew once we got the ball rolling there would be no stopping us," said senior running back/safety Sabino Portella.
Trailing by two scores early, the top-seeded Caseys regrouped quickly to tie the game at halftime before authoring a dominant second half to defeat fourth-seeded Holy Spirit, 50-21, in the NJSIAA Non-Public B state semifinals on Friday night.
A touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Frankie Williams to junior wide receiver Emanuel Ross with eight seconds left in the first half tied the score at 21 before RBC closed the game with 29 unanswered points in the second half to return to the state championship. In the Non-Public B title game, RBC will square off with DePaul on Friday, Nov. 25 at MetLife Stadium. The two schools met in last season's championship game with RBC winning 13-8.
No Shore Conference non-public school has ever won consecutive football state championships, so when the Caseys take the field for their season finale in East Rutherford next weekend both hardware and history will be on the line.
"This means the world to us," said junior linebacker Davin Brewton. "We worked so hard during the summer and now we're ready to make history for this school and show the state what we have. I know some people think we're not as good as last year but we're going to show them why we're the best in the state."
Portella ran for 190 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries and Ross caught four passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns as the Caseys' offense reached 50 points for the fourth time this season. Senior running back Torin Harmon added 75 yards rushing and two touchdowns and Williams completed 6 of 10 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. RBC's offensive line paved the way for 290 yards rushing and five touchdowns on an average of 6.3 yards per carry.
"The No. 1 priority was to establish the run game early, and once we got it going there was no stopping us," Portella said. "(The offensive line) made me look pretty good. I didn't really get touched much until the secondary."
Red Bank Catholic's defense faced a different type of challenge than usual vs. Holy Spirit and its high-volume passing offense. Spartans quarterback Sean Burns came into the game with 2,482 yards passing and 22 touchdowns and senior wideout Gavin Roman entered with 92 receptions for 1,132 yards. Roman set the state single-season for receptions in the game with 11 catches for 76 yards and now has a mind-boggling 103 receptions this season - with a Thanksgiving game vs. Atlantic City still left to play. They throw it often and with tempo out of a no-huddle set, and they also have a battering ram of a running back in 5-foot-10, 225-pound sophomore Jahcere Ward. Holy Spirit marched right down the field on its opening drive but scored only one offensive touchdown the rest of the way. RBC's defense also forced four turnovers with Portella and Brewton intercepting passes and Harmon and senior defensive end Aidan Donohue recovering fumbles.
"Honestly, we were pretty offended by all the talk about their offense vs. our defense," Portella said. "They have some good receivers; No. 1 (Roman) has about 1,000 catches on the season and they spread the ball a lot, but they only scored two offensive touchdowns on us. We did a good job adjusting after that first drive and it showed."
What stood out even more than Holy Spirit's passing attack was its penchant for going for it on fourth down with little regard for field position. The Spartans also used onside or squib kicks on every kickoff and punted with quick kicks by Burns instead of a traditional punt formation. That high-octane approach can really stress an opposing defense, but it seemed to annoy RBC more than anything.
"Our coach preached to us all week to make them pay for those things," Portella said. "That's not what high school football is. You kick the ball off at the beginning of the game, you don't onside kick it, and I thought we did a good job making them pay."
The end result was convincing, but it took a short memory and resilience to dig out of an early hole. Burns completed four straight passes to begin the game and was getting the ball out so quickly on short throws that RBC's pass rush had no chance to disrupt his rhythm. Burns moved Holy Spirit inside the 20 when he hit Khajuan Roseborough for 13 yards on fourth and 10, and two plays later Ward scored on a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 Spartans lead.
Holy Spirt went up 14-0 on the next offensive play when senior linebacker Sean Finan hit Williams' arm as he was winding up to throw and knocked the ball loose. Senior linebacker Xavier Hernandez scooped up the live ball and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown to give the Spartans a two-touchdown lead less than four minutes into the game.
"We knew it was still early and we stayed patient," Brewton said. "We just know how to overcome adversity."
While RBC didn't blow the game open until the third quarter, the Caseys certainly controlled the game for the remaining 44 minutes. It started with Portella scoring on a 3-yard touchdown run to cap a 10-play, 48-yard drive with 3:57 left in the first quarter. Portella had runs of 11, 16, and 15 yards on the drive.
The Caseys' defense then forced two straight three-and-outs and got the ball back at the Holy Spirit 32-yard line. Only play is all it took for RBC to reach the end zone as Portella broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, bounced to the outside, and scored on a 32-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 14 with under 30 seconds left in the first quarter.
The pace slowed from there with both defenses coming up with stops until Holy Spirit cooked up an 11-play, 74-yard scoring drive to take a 21-14 lead with 34 seconds left in the first half. The Spartans methodically moved across midfield and then Burns connected with senior wide receiver Jayden Llanos for gains of 16 and 17 yards down to the RBC 11-yard line. Two plays later, Burns hit Jones on a slant for an 8-yard touchdown.
Instead of kicking it deep, Holy Spirit once again used an onside kick that RBC recovered at its own 47-yard line. Ross caught an 11-yard pass on third down to move the chains and on the next play, he got behind the defense for a 36-yard game-tying touchdown with just eight seconds left in the half.
"That was huge," Portella said. "We made them pay for taking those risks."
RBC got the ball to start the third quarter - which required an onside kick recovery by Ross - and took the lead for good when Harmon scored on an 11-yard run to complete a 46-yard scoring drive. Williams had a 12-yard run and senior wideout Robert Stolfa had an 18-yard catch on third down to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Holy Spirit then went three-and-out and Burns' quick-kick punt was blocked by Donohue and downed at the Spartans' 15-yard line. The Holy Spirit defense held, but Justin LaMorte connected on a 23-yard field goal as snow began to fall to give the Caseys a 31-21 lead.
The snow squall became more intense during the third quarter but even that couldn't stop the Caseys' ground game. A stop for no gain by Brewton on third-and-1 forced Holy Spirit to punt from its own 35 and gave RBC the ball back at its own 19-yard line. Portella ran for 22 yards on the first play, gained 10 on the next handoff, and broke a 27-yard run on the third play to advance the ball to the Holy Spirit 24-yard line. Portella's 1-yard touchdown run extended RBC's lead to 38-21 late in the third quarter.
Portella then intercepted Burns on the first play of the next series. The Caseys were forced to punt, but on the first play of the following series, a deflected pass was picked off by Brewton at the Spartans' 41-yard line. On first down, Williams tossed a 41-yard touchdown pass to Ross to open up a 44-21 lead.
RBC kept its foot on the gas after forcing a turnover on downs. Taking over near midfield, the Caseys stuck to the ground and added their seventh and final touchdown when Harmon found room up the middle on a 29-yard touchdown run.
The Caseys' first NJSIAA title came in 1976, and after waiting 38 years for another they have won four more state titles since 2014. Now they are one win away from a second straight state championship and a place in the history book.
"Coach (Mike) Lange has notified us about that," Portella said. "I think we have a special team just like last year and we have a very good shot at doing it."
Scroll down for video highlights, photos, and the box score.
PHOTOS BY THOMAS PANTALEO
Red Bank Catholic vs. Holy Spirit
Red Bank Catholic 50, Holy Spirit 21
Red Bank Catholic
Holy Spirit (8-2)
Red Bank Catholic (10-1)
HS — Jahcere Ward 3-yard run (Mason Forte kick)
HS — Xavier Hernandez 50-yard fumble returns (Mason Forte kick)
RBC — Sabino Portella 3-yard run (Justin LaMorte kick)
RBC — Sabino Portella 32-yard run (Justin LaMorte kick)
HS — Tahmir Jones 8-yard pass from Sean Burns (Mason Forte kick)
RBC — Emanuel Ross 36-yard pass from Frankie Williams (Justin LaMorte kick)
RBC — Torin Harmon 11-yard run (Justin LaMorte kick)
RBC — Justin LaMorte 23-yard field goal
RBC — Sabino Portella 1-yard run (Justin LaMorte kick)
RBC — Emanuel Ross 41-yard pass from Frankie Williams (kick failed)
RBC — Torin Harmon 29-yard run (kick failed)
RUSHING — HS: Jahcere Ward 14-52, Christian Surles 3-25, Sean Burns 6-15, Gavin Roman 2-8; RBC: Sabino Portella 30-190, Torin Harmon 8-75, Frankie Williams 8-26, Robert Stolfa 1-(-3).
PASSING — HS: Sean Burns 23-48-2 204; RBC: Frankie Williams 6-10-0 121.
RECEIVING — HS: Jayden Llanos 7-77, Gavin Romano 11-76, Khajuan Roseborough 2-28, Nick Medina 2-15, Tahmir Jones 1-8; RBC: Emanuel Ross 4-105, Robert Stolfa 1-17, Najih Rahman 1-0.
INTERCEPTIONS — RBC: Sabino Portella, Davin Brewton.