Stamp of Approval: No. 2 Donovan Catholic earns signature win by topping No. 9 Southern
TOMS RIVER – As dominant as Donovan Catholic has been this year, entering Week 5 the question remained unanswered as to whether the Griffins could beat another top-10 team and if they could do so in a close game decided in the fourth quarter.
Donovan Catholic has been a program on a meteoric rise, but coming into Saturday afternoon was still searching for its signature win against a ranked team. In the fifth game of the fourth year under head coach Dan Curcione, the Griffins were finally able to capitalize on an opportunity against another of the Shore Conference’s best teams.
Senior running back Jahdir Loftland ran for 224 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 34 carries and senior wide receiver Jayon Farrar accounted for 102 yards from scrimmage, including the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter as the Griffins, ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, rallied for a 21-14 victory over No. 9 Southern Regional.
A 1-yard touchdown run by Loftland midway through the third quarter and a 14-yard touchdown run by Farrar with 9:46 left in the game helped Donovan rally from a 7-0 halftime deficit and a 14-7 deficit in the third quarter. The Griffins are now 5-0 for the second straight season and are eyeing a spot in the top pod for the upcoming postseason that will determine an unofficial Shore Conference champion.
“We have been told over and over again that we haven’t won a close game and every close game we’ve come out on the short end of the stick, so I told our guys this was good for them,” Curcione said. “That’s a good team over there (Southern) and I have a lot of respect for them. They’re a well-coached, tough team and I told the kids it was going to be a struggle. I learned that we can keep our poise. These games are very good character-building games and we needed it.”
“Being able to go toe-to-toe with a team and not giving up, giving all our effort,” Loftland said. “We knew (Southern) was going to come in here and give us their all, and they did. We just had to stay focused. We came out in the second half as a different team.”
Since Curcione - who won a state title as Wall’s head coach in 2016 - took over a Griffins program in 2017 that was coming off an 0-10 season, Ocean County’s only catholic high school has made its climb into elite territory. They went 4-6 in year one with a roster dominated by freshman and sophomore. Then they went 7-3 in 2018 followed by last year’s 9-2 campaign that saw them finish No. 8 in the Shore. What they lacked was a signature win. Years of futility meant a challenging schedule was still catching up to their new-found success, and they were unable to seize the one or two chances they had each season. In 2018 it was a 21-11 loss to Holmdel in a defacto division title game. Last season, it was a loss to Red Bank Catholic in the regular season and another to DePaul in the playoffs. The conversations about Donovan Catholic usually end with, “Yeah, but…”.
Donovan Catholic’s foil on this occasion was a Southern Regional team that started the season 3-0 and rose to No. 3 in the SSN Top 10 but tumbled to No. 9 after a turnover-laden Week 4 loss to Toms River South. The same Toms River South team that Donovan had beaten 49-6 in Week 3. On paper, it looked like it could be an easy afternoon for the Griffins and it started that way when the opening kickoff rocketed off a Southern lineman and bounced right back to Donovan where junior linebacker Connor Farrell pounced on it.
The Griffins’ explosive offense, which had scored 171 points through four games, started at its own 46-yard line and quickly made its way into Southern territory. But then, something unexpected happened. Donovan advanced to Southern’s 15-yard line but could move no farther. Southern’s defense forced a turnover on downs to thwart the Griffins’ opening series. If the Rams needed a jolt of confidence, they just received it.
Southern gained one first down but ended up punting on its first possession, but a high snap on Donovan’s next offensive play went over the head of senior quarterback Evyn Menta and was recovered by Southern junior defensive end Nate Committee at the 30-yard line. Five plays later and on the first play of the second quarter, senior quarterback Taylor Munt used a play-action fake to standout running back Jaiden Brown to suck the defense in long enough to hit a wide-open Hank Gallacher for a 17-yard touchdown. The Rams led 7-0 and Donovan Catholic now trailed for the first time this season.
The score would remain that way through halftime as Southern’s defense continued to make plays. Brown, who was held in check on the ground but had a great game at linebacker, intercepted Menta at the Southern 19-yard line on the Griffins’ next possession. On Donovan’s final series of the first half it drove all the way to Southern’s 24-yard line but was once again halted on downs. The upset was brewing and the familiar questions were being asked about Donovan.
The halftime talk involved no yelling and screaming and no dramatic pleas from Curcione or his assistants. It was tactical and calm, and when the Griffins emerged to begin the third quarter they looked more like the team everyone expected to see.
“We talked about some things we didn’t like that we did in the first half and made a couple adjustments,” Curcione said. “There was no big speech or anything like that.”
“We needed to stop playing individually,” said hulking senior left tackle Cam McNair. “Everyone was playing by themselves in the first half but after halftime we came out and played as a team.”
“Coach just said to calm down, play our game and stay focused,” Loftland said.
Donovan started the second half at its own 35-yard line and needed just three plays to find the end zone and tie the score 7-7. Farrar ran for 11 yards on first down and Loftland ripped off a 25-yard run down to the Southern 29-yard line. On the next play, senior wide receiver James Bivins took a jet sweep and raced into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown and Gavin Nguyen added the extra point.
“You give James an inch and he’s gone,” Curcione said of his speedy wideout who is also a track and field sprinting champion. “Nobody is catching him.”
While the Griffins were now on the scoreboard, any notion they were going to suddenly blow the game open was quickly dispelled by Southern. The Rams answered right back with an uppercut two plays into the next series as Munt again used play-action and this time connected with senior wide receiver Alex Rainone for a 64-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 10:19 left in the third quarter.
To Donovan’s credit, the experience they’ve built over the past four seasons that now results in multiple three- and four-year starters on the field proved invaluable. The Griffins’ offense was unstoppable in the second half, churning out runs at a clip of 9.6 yards per attempt behind their massive offensive line of left tackle Cam McNair (6-5, 325), left guard Taz McNair (6-5, 275), center Rob Madison (5-10, 240), right guard Aaron Crooms (6-0, 270), right tackle Andy Sacko (6-3, 265) and tight ends Ethan Capone (6-3, 220) and Levi Wilkins (6-4, 215).
“I just told my brothers we needed to be the hard-nosed team that we are,” Cam McNair said. “Run the ball down their mouths every play. We love that hard-nosed, gritty, in-the-trenches kind of play.”
“For a defense, it’s devastating because they know they can’t stop you and for your offense it’s uplifting knowing you can rush for five or 10 yards per carry,” Loftland said.
Following Southern’s big play to re-take the lead, Donovan marched 85 yards in nine plays to tie the game at 14. A great 38-yard catch by Farrar and a 17-yard run by Loftland put the Griffins at the 8-yard line and on fourth-and-goal, Loftland powered in from the 1-yard line for the game-tying touchdown.
Southern moved to Donovan’s 45-yard line on the next series but on third-and-two, Farrell and senior defensive lineman Nico Ippolito combined to stuff Brown for a 2-yard loss and force the Rams to punt.
Donovan began its next drive at its own 23-yard line and nine plays later was in the end zone taking its first lead of the game. After moving across midfield, Loftland broke free for a 22-yard run down to the Southern 14-yard line. On second down, Farrar took a handoff on a jet sweep and turned the corner for a walk-in 14-yard touchdown run and a 21-14 lead.
With 9:46 on the clock Southern still had plenty of time to respond and on the sixth play of the drive moved into Donovan territory when Brown converted a fourth-and-one with a 3-yard gain from midfield. A flea-flicker almost connected with Rainone for a big gain, but the back-shoulder pass fell incomplete. On the next play, a high snap went over the head of Munt and resulted in a 14-yard loss, killing the Rams’ drive. They punted from their own 39-yard line two plays later and never got the ball back.
With 4:12 on the clock, Donovan rode its ground game to the signature victory it has long been chasing. Loftland’s 20-yard run on his 34th career clinched it and allowed the Griffins to take a knee and move to 5-0.
The postseason structure is anything but official, but it appears the top four teams in the Shore Conference will be grouped in the top four-team pod. The winner can certainly call itself Shore Conference champion. Right now, that would be No. 1 Wall, No. 2 Donovan Catholic, No. 3 Red Bank Catholic and Mater Dei Prep, which beat Rumson-Fair Haven on Saturday. Still, a dangerous game with Toms River North awaits the Griffins in Week 6.
“You have to take it as a play-in game almost,” Curcione said. “We talked about that all along that we have to win them all if we want to be considered for (the top postseason group) and we can’t slip up in the game right before that. (Toms River North) is playing well and it’s going to be a heck of a challenge, but we’re playing well and I like my team a lot.”
No. 2 Donovan Catholic 21, No. 9 Southern 14
S – Hank Gallacher 17-yard pass from Taylor Munt (Hank Gallacher kick)
DC – James Bivins 29-yard run (Gavin Nguyen kick)
S – Alex Rainone 64-yard pass from Taylor Munt (Hank Gallacher kick)
DC – Jahdir Loftland 1-yard run (Gavin Nguyen kick)
DC – Jayon Farrar 14-yard run (Gavin Nguyen kick)
RUSHING – S: Jaiden Brown 19-58, Xavier Hendricks 1-13, Taylor Munt, 3-10, Hank Gallacher 1-3, Team 1-(-14); DC: Jahdir Loftland 34-224, Jayon Farrar 5-51, James Bivins 3-33, Evyn Menta 1-3.
PASSING – S: Taylor Munt 5-9-1 114; DC: Evyn Menta 6-9-1 68.
RECEIVING – S: Alex Rainone 1-64, Hank Gallacher 2-25, JP Ricciardi 1-14, Xavier Hendricks 1-11; DC: Jayon Farrar 3-51, Ethan Capone 2-16, Jahdir Loftland 1-1.
INTERCEPTIONS – S: Jaiden Brown 1-5; DC: Jayon Farrar 1-0.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.
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