By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — Fourteen days seems like an eternity in football.
At least that was how Pope John XXIII Regional High School’s football team felt leading up to Saturday’s game against Malvern Prep of Malvern, Pa. After all, the Lions had their second game of the season — a road game against Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland, Fla. — canceled due to Hurricane Irma.
When they stepped onto their home turf field on Saturday afternoon, the Lions finally let out all their pent-up energy and got revenge on Malvern Prep in the process.
Junior quarterback Niko Hroncich completed 19 of 24 passes for 126 yards and accounted for three touchdowns, and the Lions’ defense made five sacks — all in the first half— en route to a 27-10 win over the Friars, a year after losing a 28-24 game to them.
“This was big,” Hroncich said. “The goal coming in here was to come in here and get a win because they had beat us last year. We had our game canceled last week, which was aggravating, but we stayed focused and we knew we had to finish this time around against them.”
“This was really huge for us,” said senior linebacker Nick DeNucci, who had five solo tackles, four assisted tackles and two sacks on defense and an 8-yard TD catch from Hroncich on offense.
“Last week, our trip was canceled, so it was a bummer. But, we came in here and played strong. It showed on the scoreboard today.”
The Lions had been wondering how things were going to go on Saturday.
After all, they had topped Bishop McNamara High School of Forestville, Md., 32-7, on Sept. 2 at home in a game in which they scored a touchdown in all three phases of the game, but committed an eye-popping 16 penalties. Three days later, the Lions and Lake Gibson had to cancel their Friday night game because Hurricane Irma was anticipated to hit Florida as a Category 5 storm by the time they would leave the Sunshine State on Sunday.
Since the cancelation, the Lions had held a handful of practices in preparation for Malvern Prep, a team that won after scoring the go-ahead touchdown on their final drive of the game and forcing Pope John to turn the ball over on downs on its last possession in the final seconds.
Despite the unfortunate turn of events with their trip, the Lions were locked-in on this game.
“It was like the first game again,” Pope John head coach Brian Carlson said. “The kids were disappointed that they couldn’t be the first team from Pope John to get on a plane and go to Florida. But, they did a great job preparing and using their maturity to come out here today and play well.”
When the Lions and Friars squared off again, the Lions got off to a slow start, as they let the Friars take a 3-0 lead in the first quarter on a 30-yard field goal from Garrett Reilly during the opening drive and they punted on their first two drives.
But in the second quarter, the Lions got on a roll.
On a third-and-9 for the Friars with 10:30 left, DeNucci registered his second sack of the game to force Malvern Prep to punt. When the Lions got the ball back on a short punt, they proceeded to take a 7-3 lead with 7:13 left after junior wide receiver Samuel Darrell scored on a Wildcat run from 6 yards out to cap a six-play, 34-yard drive.
Then, the Lions recovered a Malvern Prep fumble after defensive tackle Jonathan Marquez pounced on the ball following a bobbled snap to set up the offense on the Friars’ 9-yard line. From there, it only took three plays before the Lions grabbed a 14-3 lead after junior wideout Tajimier Jones snagged an 8-yard TD pass from Hronchich.
After the score, the Lions’ defense poured on the pressure against the Friards, forcing to punt on their final two drives of the half.
On the first drive, the Friars had -12 yards offensively after senior linebackers Ryan Greenhagen and Ty Hranicka combined on a sack that went for a loss of 10 yards. On the second drive, senior defensive lineman Aidan Murray had a hand in two sacks, one of which went for a 9-yard loss and the other one he assisted with junior defensive end Louis Montana that went for a loss of 7 yards.
Carlson loved how his defense played in the first half.
“We got some great athletes over there,” Carlson said. “In two games, that first unit has allowed only 10 points. They worked hard and took over.”
In the second half, the Lions put the Friars away with two more TDs from Hroncich, who was incredibly efficient.
Hroncich scored his second TD on a 2-yard keeper on the opening drive of the second half after he helped the team go 40 yards down the field. He went 3-for-3 on the drive with 25 yards.
Then in the fourth quarter, he found DeNucci — an eligible receiver as a tight end — on a rollout to the right side from 8 yards out to make it 27-3 with 6:49 left.
“Our motto is to put the ball in the end zone all the time,” Hroncich said. “So those two were great confidence boosters and it made us feel like the game was in our hands.”
Now, the Lions will try to keep up the good energy and move to 3-0 next Saturday when they play their first New Jersey opponent, which happens to be rival Delbarton at home. The game takes place on Homecoming weekend and is also a North Jersey Super Football Conference United White Division game, which last year Pope John won by a 14-7 count at Delbarton.
“That’s one of our biggest games,” DeNucci said. “They are our rivals. So, we are going to be hyped up for that one.”
Pope John 27, Malvern Prep (Pa.) 10
MP 3 0 0 7 — 10
PJ 0 14 7 6 — 27
MP — FG Garrett Reilly 30
PJ — Samuel Darrell 6 run (Vincent Antoniello kick)
PJ — Tajimier Jones 8 pass from Niko Hronchich (Antoniello kick)
PJ — Hroncich 2 run (Antoniello kick)
PJ — Nick DeNucci 8 pass from Hroncich (kick failed)
MP — Daniel Garrity 38 pass from Lonnie White (Reilly kick)
Records: Malvern Prep 1-2, Pope John 2-0