By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — Last year at this time, the Pope John XXIII Regional High School football team was supposed to play a team from Maryland in its home opener.
Unfortunately, the game had to be canceled, then later went down as a forfeit win for the Lions after their opponent — Eastern Christian Academy — had to close its doors for undisclosed reasons.
On Saturday, the Lions got another chance to host a team from Maryland, this time it was Bishop McNamara High School of Forestville, Md.
By the end of the game, the Lions had earned first victory over an out-of-state opponent in school history in dominating fashion, rolling past Bishop McNamara, 32-7, at Pope John XXIII Regional High School.
“It’s a good win,” said Pope John senior running back Berrell Neal, who had 103 yards on the day after making three receptions for 42 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 61 yards on 10 carries. “Playing an out-of-state team that is one of the top in their division is helping us prepare to face the top teams in our conference.”
“Our tradition is great, but we want to extend the brand,” Pope John head coach Brian Carlson said. “We just want to let people know about us and that we are coming ready to play.”
The Lions had their way with the Mustangs, who compete in the ultra-competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference just outside of Washington D.C.
On the first series, the Lions forced Bishop McNamara to go three and out after junior defensive end Louis Montana made a 2-yard tackle for a loss, senior linebacker Ryan Greenhagen and defensive tackle Jonathan Marquez made a stop on second down and the team forced an incomplete on third down.
When they got the ball on the Mustangs’ own 47-yard line following a punt, the Lions marched down the field and into the end zone on seven plays, with senior running back Terrance Jones capping the drive with a 27-yard touchdown run up the left side of the field to make it 6-0. The Lions took that one-score lead into the second quarter.
After forcing Bishop McNamara to punt to start the second, the Lions extended their lead to 12-0 after junior quarterback Niko Hroncich dropped in a perfect 39-yard touchdown pass to Neal. Hroncich, who started his first career game, was happy that TD pass was his first one of his career.
“That was really big,” Hroncich said. “I thought I overthrew him, but I saw him come down with it and the crowd went crazy. But, we needed because it took some pressure off us.”
Then, with 1:10 left in the quarter after the Lions made the Mustangs punt two more times, they grabbed an 18-0 lead after Neal came down with a 3-yard TD catch from Hroncich that he caught in between a couple of defenders.
Carlson was impressed with Hroncich, who finished 8-for-17 passing with 104 yards two TDs and one interception, in his first start.
“Niko did a great job,” Carlson said. “He managed the game well for us.. We have a lot of weapons on our team and we just tell him to control the ball and play within himself. He did that.”
In the second half, the Lions got a big spark from senior Samuel Darrell, who returned the kickoff to begin the half 75 yards for a touchdown. Vincent Antoniello’s ensuing extra point make it 25-0 Pope John just 15 seconds into the half.
After Darrell’s TD, Bishop McNamara managed to get on the scoreboard after Johnny Woodbury caught a 9-yard TD pass from Stanton Askew to make it 25-7 Pope John with 3:39 left in the third quarter.
But, the Lions put the Mustangs away with 11:20 left in the fourth thanks to a big defensive sequence from senior linebackers Nick DeNucci and Greenhagen. On a first-and-10 for Bishop McNamara on its own 35-yard line, DeNucci, a Boston College recruit, forced a fumble off a sack on a blitz. Then, Greenhagen picked up the ball on a hop and rumbled his way for a 25-yard touchdown return.
Carlson liked that his team was able to play well enough despite making 16 penalties. However, he and the Lions know that they have to build on this performance and get ready for another out-of-state opponent — Lake Gibson High School, of Lakeland, Fla.
After all, the Lions will be making the trip to Lakeland to face Lake Gibson for a Friday night matchup and will be trying to prove that they can beat teams from multiple states.
“It was a good win, but we can’t be ecstatic about it,” Carlson said. “We made way too many penalties. We have to clean that up. We scored in three different areas, which is good, but it’s going to be a challenge facing Lake Gibson next week in Florida.”
“We have to play better,” Greenhagen said. “This win is over. We need to clean everything up and play well next week.”
Pope John 32, Bishop McNamara (Md.) 7
BM 0 0 7 0 — 7
PJ 6 12 7 7 — 32
PJ — Terrance Jones 27 run (pass failed)
PJ — Berrell Neal 39 pass from Niko Hroncich (pass failed)
PJ — Neal 3 pass from Hroncich (pass failed)
PJ — Samuel Darrell 75 kickoff return (Vincent Antoniello kick)
BM — Johnny Woodbury 9 pass from Stanton Askew (Keith Parker kick)
PJ — Ryan Greenhagen 25 fumble return (Antoniello kick)
Records: Bishop McNamara 0-2, Pope John 1-0