John Knebels

Some people appreciate that the Catholic League awards football championships based on the regular season. Others long for the traditional method of two teams battling each other in the post-season.

This past Friday night, Oct. 20, the Red Division and Blue Division had a pair of games being played an hour apart. Depending on the results, it could have presented an exciting plot – titles being decided head to head – entering this weekend’s regular-season finale.

Maybe next year.

At Widener University, St. Joseph’s Prep survived a sluggish first half and used a dominant third quarter to defeat La Salle, 28-14, and clinch the Red. At Cardinal O’Hara, Neumann-Goretti trailed by a touchdown at halftime, went ahead on a touchdown, and then played stout defense to defeat the Lions, 22-21, to snare the Blue.

The victories made this weekend’s contests mere warm-ups to the upcoming District 12 tournament.

“It’s always big (to win the Catholic League),” said Prep senior quarterback Marquez McCray. “We say we have three championships – the Catholic League, the city, and the state title. We just have one of the three right now.”

For the past 10 years, the champion of the Catholic League’s highest PIAA class size – this year 6A – has been determined by either St. Joseph’s Prep or La Salle. At a mobbed Widener University, the Hawks received a spirited response from their coaches during halftime.

It made a difference.

“We got a little yelled at,” said senior linebacker Zach Snider, wearing a cast covering a broken right hand that required surgery this week. “We shifted into gear. We had to start wrapping up our tackling.”

La Salle (6-2 overall, 4-1 league) had taken a 7-0 lead with 6:59 left in the opening quarter when senior quarterback Danny Solecki (17 for 25, 147 yards) scored on a three-yard run to cap a 10-play, 58-yard drive. The Explorers were knocking again before senior Dejuan Dandridge intercepted a pass. The Prep (7-0, 5-0) was able to tie the contest two minutes into the second quarter on a 16-yard touchdown pass from McCray to senior Brandon Sanders.

Heading into the halftime, La Salle led in most statistical categories, particularly in time of possession (18:19 to 5:41). But the Explorers weren’t able to capitalize, and that would be their downfall.

The Hawks recovered by scoring three unanswered touchdowns in a 13-minute, 46 second span. Midway through the third quarter, a 40-yard pass to a streaking senior James Cherry put the ball at the one-yard line, and sophomore Kolbe Burrell did the touchdown honors.

Less than three minutes later, junior Marques Mason dashed 51 yards for another score. The backbreaker occurred 46 seconds into the fourth quarter when McCray raced 45 yards for a touchdown to increase the lead to 28-7. An eight-yard touchdown pass from Solecki to senior Troy Holland cut the Explorers’ deficit to 28-14, but La Salle was unable to do much with the remaining 5:38.

“I’m proud of the way our kids competed and the way they responded to some early adversity,” said Prep coach Gabe Infante. “It was also great to see some of our young players make big plays and come into their own.”

In the Blue Division contest, Neumann-Goretti relied on their running game to thwart O’Hara’s upset effort. The Saints engineered 46 rushes and amassed 320 yards, a scary average of seven yards per carry. The Saints also scored three rushing touchdowns and converted a pair of two-point runs.

The trio of seniors Chris Wells (16 carries, 149 yards, two touchdowns), Leddie Brown (15 for 87, touchdown, two two-point conversions) and Quadir Monroe (12 for 75) was unstoppable.

“We went into the game feeling confident and certain about our efforts and what we could do,” said senior linebacker Jayvonne Campfield. “We never doubted our coaches and put our unwavering trust in them. The team also leaned on one another, which ultimately let us win the game.”

A week prior, one could tell that the Lions were confident they would succeed. O’Hara’s resolve began to wane late.

“We got tired at the end and they started making some plays and we didn’t know how to capitalize,” said senior two-way lineman Tom Wertz. “We struggled on offense after they started to catch on to our tendencies.

“I think the difference was our inability to finish the game. We played a greet game and fought a great fight and just did not finish. They are a great team, though, with tons of talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they go all the way and win a state title.”

N-G considered O’Hara a worthy adversary.

“It was a really close win,” said junior wide receiver and defensive back Tre’Sean Boui. “O’Hara came to play. Our penalties almost cost us the game. During halftime Coach Albie (Crosby) said we were gonna come back. Everybody took that and came in the second half of the game with a killer mindset.”

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John Knebels can be reached at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.