By ANTHONY SPAULDING
Director of Communications
Pope John XXIII Regional High School
SPARTA — The Pope John XXIII Regional High School football team has got off to a great start in its pursuit of the program’s 21st state championship.
The Lions put up an eye-popping 46 points in the first half and dominated seventh-seeded Donovan Catholic en route to a 53-7 victory over the Griffins in the first round of the Non-Public, Group 3 playoffs.
With the win, the second-seeded Lions (6-3) are back in the sectional semifinals for the second straight season and are two wins away from claiming the ultimate prize. To get a shot at their goal, the Lions will have to beat third-seeded St. Joseph of Montvale — a team they that beat them, 20-14, on Oct. 14 at St. Joe’s — next Saturday at Pope John.
“This is great,” said Pope John senior linebacker Nick DeNucci, who returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown and had three tackles in the win. “This is a fresh start. We had a week off after the end of the (regular season), so it was great to get back in the swing of things and get the win. Now, we have a great game against St. Joe’s next week to play. We’ve been waiting for this moment.”
The Lions entered the state playoffs on a three-game losing streak after dropping tough games to three of the top teams in New Jersey in St. Joes, Bergen Catholic and DePaul. The Lions had a bye week after the 35-0 loss to DePaul — the No. 1 seed in Non-Public, Group 3 who beat them, 23-20, in last year’s semifinal round — and used that time to regroup for their state run.
When they took the field on Saturday, the Lions had their way with Donovan Catholic (3-6).
The Lions kicked off their dominating effort by watching junior Samuel Darrell return a punt 50 yards for a touchdown. Then after the defense forced another punt, senior running backs Berrell Neal ran for an 11-yard score and senior running back Terrance Jones followed him with a 1-yard plunge for a score on the next series to spot the Lions a 20-0 lead after one quarter.
In the second quarter, the Lions put up 26 more points. DeNucci started it by scooping up a fumble forced by Jordan Francois and running it up the left side for his TD, then Neal scored his second rushing TD from 26 yards out.
Junior safety Chris Rodriguez recovered a fumble on the next series, then scored a rushing touchdown of his own from 12 yards out to make it 39-0 and start a running clock for the rest of the game. Junior Jacob Huhn capped the half with a 1-yard TD run to help the Lions take a commanding lead going into the break.
Dan Rosario provided the only score of the second half for the Lions, rushing for a touchdown from 6 yards away.
Pope John head coach Brian Carlson and the Lions were happy with the victory, but they know they have to do everything they can to beat St. Joe’s after falling into a 20-0 hole against the Green Knights in their first meeting. The Lions scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and had a chance to take the lead on their final drive, but St. Joe’s intercepted a pass to seal the win.
“We have some unfinished business from last year and from the last time we played St. Joe’s,” Neal said. “We came close, but we just have to finish the job now.”
“This was a nice win, but we have a tough team next week,” Pope John head coach Brian Carlson said. “We’ve preached ‘Finish!’ all year. We are looking forward to the challenge.”
Pope John 53, Donovan Catholic 7
DC 0 0 0 7 — 7
PJ 20 26 7 0 — 53
PJ — Samuel Darrell 50 punt return (kick failed)
PJ — Berrell Neal 11 run (Vincent Antoniello kick)
PJ — Terrance Jones 1 run (Antoniello kick)
PJ — Nick DeNucci 20 fumble return (Antoniello kick)
PJ — Neal 26 run (run failed)
PJ — Chris Rodriguez 12 run (kick failed)
PJ — Jacob Huhn 1 run (Collin Mills kick)
PJ — Dan Rosario 6 run (Mills kick)
DC — Yassin Moore 5 run (Keaon Torres kick)
Records: Donovan Catholic 3-6, Pope John 6-3