By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
ORADELL — For a team that has a pretty rich history when it comes to football, the Pope John XXIII Regional High School football team played arguably its toughest opponent in school history on Saturday.
The Lions faced Bergen Catholic, the No. 1 team in both New Jersey and the Tri-State area, on the road at Bergen Catholic High School.
While most critics felt they would get run over in this matchup, the Lions — ranked No. 4 in the News 12 Varsity Tri-State Top 25 and No. 7 in the NJ.com Top 20 — took the Crusaders down to the wire and almost pulled off a shocking victory. But, they missed two crucial go-ahead field goals in the fourth quarter, including a 50-yard try as time expired, plus failed on two extra-point attempts and lost a 20-19 heartbreaker.
“We played phenomenal today,” Pope John head coach Brian Carlson said. “We played for 48 minutes against a great team, but we left some points off the scoreboard. We should’ve won.”
“We believed in ourselves coming into this that we could win,” said Pope John senior linebacker Jake Brown, who had seven tackles, three tackles for a loss, a half of a sack and a pass deflection in the defeat. “Our motto this year is ‘Finish!’ We wanted to finish, but that didn’t happen. But I think we turned a lot of heads today. They are a great team with great coaches and we took them down to the last second.”
According to most people, the Lions (5-2) came into the game as an underdog to Bergen Catholic (5-2), which held a 4-0 record against New Jersey teams this season. The Crusaders’ only losses were to the No. 1 team in the country in Mater Dei High School of Santa Ana, Calif., and Archbishop Wood of Warminster, Pa.
But, none of that scared off the Lions when they took the field on Saturday.
In fact, the Lions took a 7-0 lead on the Crusaders in the first quarter after Jhadir Charles came away with an interception that ended Bergen Catholic’s second drive and senior running back Berrell Neal capped a five-play, 17-yard drive by running for a 6-yard touchdown. Neal’s TD was aided by a running-into-the-kicker penalty by Bergen Catholic during a 28-yard field goal attempt from Vincent Antoniello on fourth down.
Then after Bergen Catholic tied the game at 7 with a 15-yard Johnny Langan touchdown pass to Dylan Classi on the next drive to end the first quarter, the Lions opened the second with a bang, as Neal busted through a hole in the Crusaders’ defense and took the ball 86 yards to the house for another touchdown to give Pope John a 13-7 lead.
However, the Lions’ special teams issues started after this touchdown, as they had their ensuing extra-point try blocked by the Crusaders, leaving the score at 13-7 with 11:48 left in the half.
Despite the miss, the Lions kept playing BC tough, as they forced the Crusaders turn the ball over on downs on their next drive after senior linebacker Ryan Greenhagen sacked Langan and forced a fumble on fourth down. Then, they made the Crusaders punt on their second drive of the quarter.
But, in the final 40 seconds of the half, the Lions let BC score 10 points and trailed 17-13 at halftime.
The Lions gave up a 31-yard field goal to Mike Kearney with 40 seconds left, and then gave up a 10-yard TD to Classi with seven seconds left after mismanaging the clock and mishandling the snap on a punt attempt on their final possession of the half. The Lions took a knee on first down, but BC quickly used the first of its three timeouts to try to get the ball back. The Lions wound up running on the next two plays and BC used its final two timeouts to force a punt, which the Lions could not get off and allowed the Crusaders to take over at the Pope John 10-yard line.
In the second half, the Lions managed to grab the lead back from the Crusaders after thanks to two big plays from senior linebacker Ty Hranicka and senior fullback Ron Fox. Hranicka intercepted a Bergen Catholic pass that was tipped by Brown to open the third quarter and returned it to the 4-yard line, where Fox scored from on a pass from junior quarterback Niko Hroncich by stretching his arm across the goal line as he was tackled to give the Lions a 19-17 lead.
Unfortunately, the Lions missed their second PAT of the game after their kick went left of the post, keeping it only a two-point edge on the Crusaders. This miss proved costly, as the Crusaders went down the field and received a go-ahead 36-yard field goal from Kearney following a 12-play, 52-yard drive with 5:55 left in the third.
The Lions tried to do everything in their power to overtake the Crusaders in the final 17:55 of the game.
The Lions had two big chances to do so in the fourth quarter. The first came when they marched 45 yards down the field to the BC 17 to set up a 34-yard field goal try on the strength of three receptions from Neal, who totaled 40 yards on the drive.
Unfortunately, the Lions kick went wide right, keeping the Crusaders in front by one point.
After the miss, though, the Lions got their next big chance to win it when they got the ball at their own 31 with 1:58 left after forcing the Crusaders to punt on another big defensive stand that featured a combined sack from Brown and junior defensive end Louis Montana.
The Lions got in BC territory quickly, thanks to a 30-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Samuel Darrell to set them up at the Crusaders’ 39. But, the Lions only gained 7 more yards on the next six plays they ran, and because they had used their third timeout on the fifth of those plays, they had to rush the special teams unit onto the field to try one last kick to win it.
Unfortunately, the 50-yarder they booted had the distance, but it just went wide left, allowing the Crusaders to survive for the win.
As heartbreaking as the loss was, the Lions believe there were a lot of lessons to take away from this as they head into their final game of the season against DePaul on Friday and into the postseason, where they are a contender for the Non-Public, Group 3 title and are looking to win their 21st state championship in school history.
“We played great on defense, offense, but games like this come down to the little things and you have to finish and execute to win them,” Carlson said. “But, we know we can play with anyone.”
“Being this team was No. 1 and we went down to the wire with them, we proved we could play with the best,” Brown said. “This was a huge game for us. We have to take this and move on.”
Bergen Catholic 20, Pope John 19
PJ 7 6 6 0 — 19
BC 7 10 3 0 — 20
PJ — Berrell Neal 6 run (Vincent Antoniello kick)
BC — Dylan Classi 15 pass from Johnny Langan (Michael Kearney kick)
PJ — Neal 86 run (kick failed)
BC — FG Kearney 31
BC — Classi 10 pass from Langan (Kearney kick)
PJ — Ron Fox 4 pass from Hroncich (kick failed)
BC — FG Kearney 36
Records: Pope John 5-2, Bergen Catholic 5-2