The St. John’s Cadets have been on a roller coaster of a season, but with a victory Saturday over No. 2-ranked DeMatha, they will find themselves back at the top of the ride.
The Cadets, who began their season ranked in the top five nationally, and number one in the region, set out to play what is unanimously considered the toughest schedule in the nation. Over a four-week stretch they played teams who were at the time ranked numbers 1, 3 and 5 in the country — taking grueling trips to New Jersey and Texas in the process.
Some questioned whether the Cadets schedule was overly ambitious and ultimately hurt the team in the process,
“We work hard year-round for these opportunities,” head coach Joe Casamento said, “ The goal of some teams is to play in one big game at the end of the year, our philosophy is we want for our student-athletes to be able to play in the ‘Super Bowl’ every week. I don’t want to play someone we know we’re going to beat. We’re teaching our student-athletes to have courage and to understand how to accept challenges in life."
Football, perhaps more than any other sport relies on momentum. Losing four in a row, no matter the strength of the competition can break a team’s confidence — such a losing streak has the ability to negatively affect a group's psyche, which can be difficult to rebound from. Casamento says this was never the case with the Cadets. “This team stayed positive. We don’t point any fingers. We stayed connected”.
St. John’s got back on track with a 45-7 win at Bishop McNamara setting up a WCAC showdown with Good Counsel. The Cadets came out on top in a back-and-forth dog fight. Second-team quarterback Wyatt Hagan connected with LSU commit Rakim Jarrett for a huge catch and run in the waning moments, which ultimately set up Antwain Littleton’s go-ahead touchdown plunge.
The Cadets overcame multiple key injuries in the victory, including starting QB Sol-Jay Maiva. According to Casamento, it wasn’t that SJC defeated GC that impressed him, it was what they overcame to do so,
“I told the guys after the game, this was a phenomenal win”, said Casamento, “I looked out on the field in the 4th quarter and saw guys who previously hadn’t played much making plays and keeping us in the game. I was proud of them because they fought hard throughout the game, they believed in each other and ultimately pulled it out”.
The long journey of a season has led St. John’s to a familiar place — a crucial WCAC clash with the DeMatha Stags.
For years DeMatha has been the class of the conference. The proverbial gold standard, the Stags have played in 20 of the last 22 WCAC title games and won five of the last seven championships. The 2019 unit is keeping up with tradition.
Winners of six of their last seven, DeMatha is arguably the most balanced team in the league. They boast a defense filled with future Division I student-athletes and playmakers at every level— it is easy to understand how at one point they shut out four consecutive opponents.
On offense, the Stags trot out two equally effective quarterbacks. Senior Malakai Anthony excels in RPO opportunities. He is a consistent running threat. Freshmen Cameron Edge has rare arm talent and is earning rave reviews from teammates and competitors alike.
The key to the DeMatha engine though is their rushing attack. The Stags have a stable of backs. Sieh Bangura and Kevin Winston Jr. are impressive. The electrifying Marshawn Lloyd is amongst the tops in the country. He is capable of changing the landscape of a game every time he touches the ball.
“We have to stop Marshawn,” said Casamento. “He’s a special running back. We can’t afford to let him get going if we desire to win”.
In 2019 SJC has embraced experiences few other high school programs ever will. At times they have soared to the highest of highs and in others they’ve been low. St. John’s 4-4 record adequately expresses the ups and downs of fielding a schedule few others would even consider.
Was the task too daunting? The travel too vigorous and the competition too fierce? Or was it all designed to prepare the Cadets for this moment.
On Saturday afternoon vs. DeMatha many of those questions will be answered.