St. John’s had just defeated DeMatha 34-20 to advance to the WCAC final. With his Cadets huddled on a knee before him, head coach Joe Casamento continued exalting his team,
“Our goal is not to get to the championship game, but to be a champion,” he said. “In order to do that, we must prepare like a champion every day. We [coaches] are going to push you and you’re going to win this championship because you deserve it!”
Before SJC could erupt in cheer, senior captain Mekhail Sherman stood up. “What’s going on, did I say something wrong?”, Casamento asked, “No sir, I just want to say something,” continued Sherman while respectfully directing his attention to the coach and athletic director, Brian Griffin, “Coach, remember when you apologized to us after we had those four loses?” asked Sherman, “Never again. You never had to apologize. We needed that!”
The Cadets broke out in applause.
Good Counsel head coach Andy Stefanelli shared a similar moment during his victory speech following the Falcons 44-14 drubbing of Gonzaga, while referencing GC’s week 3 loss to nationally ranked St. John Bosco (Ca).
“I knew it. I knew it when we were in California," he said. "We were down 24-0 and we scored a touchdown to make it 24-8. I knew then that we had something special. You kept playing. You kept fighting against a great football team and I knew in that moment that this team had what it took to win a championship”.
St. John’s and Good Counsel will meet Sunday at Catholic University for the 2019 WCAC title. Each club is playing its best football at the right time, but this season hasn’t been a walk in the park for either. While some of their foes racked up victories against lesser teams, the Falcons and Cadets played tough teams weekly — St. John’s doing so on the national stage.
There have been ups and downs. Their seasons have been a grind and skeptics have at times questioned both — but each has responded.
Good Counsel began the 2019 season 2-0, but for the most part, only those wearing blue and gold celebrated those victories. The Falcons opened by hosting Charlotte Catholic (8-3, NC), a team that finished 15-1 the previous year. GC shut out Catholic, but managed only seven points themselves.
The following week they held eventual MIAA champion, Mount St. Joseph (10-2) to seven, while managing a mere 19. Questions began to arise in reference to the potency of the Falcons offense. When they lost on the road to Bosco (10-1, Ca), 31-8, those on the outside went into all-out panic. Stefanelli preached patience,
“We’re young on the offensive side of the ball and we knew that coming in,” he said. “ We only have a couple starters coming back. The mistakes are what has been killing us, but we’re working through it. We are getting better”.
The Cadets opened the season 2-0 as well, and like the Falcons, they had their own set of challenges. Though impressive in a 52-30 win over Deerfield Beach (Fla) (9-3), the victory came at a heavy price. St. John’s was hit with a rash of injuries, especially in the secondary.
The following weekend they would travel to St. Joseph’s Prep (9-2, NJ) to face a team with a lethal passing attack, led by Kyle McCord and Marvin Harrison Jr.
The Cadets found themselves down early before storming back, cutting the deficit to 34-30 late in the fourth. SJC was driving to take the lead late when wide receiver Rakim Jarrett caught a pass, streaked down the sidelines and while fighting for extra yards, was stripped of the ball and the Hawks recovered. Jarrett, who had played an excellent game to that point, sat on the turf despondent for a moment, before bouncing up and jogged off the field. St. John’s would lose their first regular-season game in two years.
The next week, they traveled to Texas and lost to Duncanville (11-0). At home, they’d drop the next two to perennial powerhouses IMG (9-1) and Mater Dei (11-0).
When the season began, St. John’s was ranked top five nationally. Six weeks into the year, they had four defeats.
By early October anonymous coaches were taking shots at the Cadets, saying they’d “bitten off more than they could chew."
A lead scout of a major recruiting site suggested aloud that perhaps SJC’s top prospects would be better off shutting it down for the remainder of the year and preparing for college.
The Cadets had other ideas.
“A loss isn’t a loss if you get better in the process,” coach Casamento said. “I want our student-athletes to have courage about life and never be afraid of a challenge."
Internally, the Cadets didn’t view their four-game skid as a negative. They knew their ultimate goal of winning a WCAC championship was still a possibility, thus their struggles were a part of the process.
“Our guys handled the schedule very well. We knew we were in for a rough road. We knew they [our opponents] would be great. We knew we wouldn’t have much margin of error. We accepted that,” said Casamento.
On October 11th, Good Counsel was set to open league play versus defending champion, Gonzaga. The Falcons had won their previous three games, but for as well as their defense had played, the Falcons wins hadn’t done much to place doubters at ease with their offense.
In week five they needed a special teams' score and pick 6 to defeat Friendship (8-3) 21-12. After trailing early, it took late-game heroics by the GC defense to preserve a 17-14 win over Ryken.
The Eagles, on the other hand, entered the contest with Good Counsel flying high. They were undefeated and for the most part unchallenged. Averaging nearly 40 points per game and most believed they’d simply outscore the Falcons. Gonzaga didn’t take long to support that theory.
Quarterback Caleb Williams connected with Hayden Fisher to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead. Late in the 2nd quarter with Good Counsel’s offense struggling, the Falcons called an unlikely play that may have saved their season.
Chase Williams handed the ball to former quarterback-turned-wide receiver, Trace Campbell on what appeared to be a jet sweep. Running towards the boundary to his right, Campbell gained control of his body and launched a pass towards the end zone and into the open arms of Miles Cross.
The touchdown tied the game and set the stage for a thrilling ending with lasting repercussions.
The Falcons defense held Caleb Williams and Gonzaga scoreless for the remainder of regulation. The game went to overtime tied at seven apiece. During the extra frame, the Falcons offense finally took flight. Scoring four touchdowns, GC handed the champs their first loss of the season, 35-28.
“We’d just been making a lot of mistakes [on offense], which of course is a problem,” said Stefanelli, “but in the critical points of the game, we executed great. A lot of plays we had been just missing on, we hit and hopefully this will propel us forward for the rest of the season”.
The win over Gonzaga was paramount as it would lend the Falcons the tie-break advantage over the Eagles and with it, home-field advantage when the two would later meet in the conference semi-final.
On October 18th, Good Counsel’s next opponent would be St. John’s.
The prior week, the Cadets defeated McNamara 45-7 to break their four-game losing streak, even if it didn’t silence all of their critics.
“I tell my student-athletes to never listen to anyone telling you how great or how bad you are — because you’re never as good or as bad as they say,” said Casamento. “The only thing that matters is what’s going on inside our own locker room."
In facing a tough GC squad, the Cadets knew they’d be in a position to prove their doubters wrong or validate them altogether.
St. John’s started fast. Touchdown runs by Antwain Littleton and Colby McDonald gave the Cadets a 14-0 lead. After GC fought back, quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava found Jamaar Curtis in the corner of the end zone to make it 26-21 at the half.
By the third quarter, SJC had lost the lead and two of their starting offensive linemen. The Falcons outscored the Cadets 10-0, and in applying relentless pressure, Good Counsel’s defense knocked Maiava out of the game with an apparent shoulder injury.
Enter sophomore quarterback Wyatt Hagan.
Trailing 31-26, the sparingly used sophomore lead the Cadets inside the Falcons 20 early in the fourth. When the GC defense tightened, the Cadets drive stalled and when SJC faced a 4th and 22. the Falcons Mitchell Melton sacked Hagan forcing a turnover on downs. St. John’s chances of winning the game and turning their season around appeared bleak.
A Good Counsel punt pinned the Cadets inside the 10. With less than two minutes remaining. and 92 yards separating St. John’s from victory, the Cadets needed someone to make a play.
Identifying man coverage, Hagan threw a quick pass to Rakim Jarrett in the flat, Jarrett made one man miss and was off to the races. Perhaps recalling his fumble in the Cadets come back attempt versus St. Joseph’s, the 5 star receiver sprinted down the sideline with the ball clinched to his chest high and tight before finally being tackled inside the Good Counsel 15. This time, instead of sitting on the turf as he did in New Jersey, Jarrett popped to his feet, nodding his head with the infectious energy spectators have come to expect from the electric young man.
Seconds later, Littleton would plunge over the middle for the game winning touchdown. The season was saved and Rakim, redeemed.
Sol-Jay Maiava would return in week nine and lead the Cadets to victories over DeMatha, Gonzaga and the Stags again in the conference semis. Their tough schedule hadn’t broken them, it’d made them stronger and prepared them for championship moments.
Accordingly, Good Counsel followed a tough loss to DeMatha by beating McNamara 52-7 before dominating Gonzaga in their playoff matchup. The fruit of the Falcons grit and determination was coming to fruition as Stefanelli always envisioned it would.
The Cadets and Falcons are battle-tested. They’ve been down, been doubted and through it all, found their moments of redemption. Neither enter Sunday’s championship game with a perfect record, but both know all they have to do finish with a perfect season, is go 1-0.