HAMMONTON — When you’re part of a football program that has been winning state championships as long as St. Joseph, there’s no reason to panic when you’re down 19-7 at halftime, even when you’re playing a team with the talent and pedigree of rival Holy Spirit.

Little went right for the hometown Wildcats in the first half on Saturday afternoon in a state playoff tune-up between squads that may eventually meet in a state championship game, but some big plays from the offense early in the fourth quarter and a huge defensive stop in the final minute inside the 5-yard line led to a 22-19 comeback victory.

St. Joseph (8-1) took the lead for the first time with a tick less than four minutes remaining when quarterback Jayden Shertel found Ahmad Ross over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown, but a nice kickoff return from Holy Spirit senior Ahmad Brown and some bulldozing runs from fellow senior E’lijah Gray had the Spartans (4-4) knocking on the door inside of two minutes. Two tough runs by Gray brought the ball to the 10-yard line and gave the Spartans first-and-goal, but then — as Gray was fighting for extra yards inside the 5-yard line St. Joseph’s Chase Lomax stripped the ball and it popped right into the hands of teammate Keyshon Griffin at the 3, essentially ending the game and wrapping up the Wildcats’ sixth straight win since their only loss of the season, which came against St. Augustine Prep back in September.

“They ran a zone play to the right and (Gray) tried jump-cutting, so I tried hitting the ball out and it just came out. That was the plan the entire time, to have it pop right up to one of our people,” Lomax said, in jest. “We got a lucky bounce. We had the football Gods on our side in the second half, but I have all the faith in our defense. I knew we were going to buckle up. I just kept saying, ‘hold them to a field goal,’ because I knew if we went into overtime we were going to win.”

“Sometimes we bend, but we never break,” added 6-foot-2, 260-pound junior defensive tackle Ethan Hunt. “We kept our heads in it, stayed level-minded and just played football from beginning to end.”

The rivals started the game by trading punts, but then Holy Spirit sophomore quarterback Trevor Cohen found Brown for a big gainer down to the St. Joseph 30-yard line. Gray then took a handoff, ran right and stopped to loft a beautiful pass to Elijah Steward in the end zone. Patrick Newman’s extra point gave the Spartans a 7-0 lead with 5:47 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats responded early in the second quarter when quarterback Jayden Shertel found all-everything back Jada Byers down the right sideline for a 42 yard scoring strike to tie the game at 7.

But Spirit found the end zone twice more before halftime, building a 19-7 lead. Gray capped off a nice drive by plowing his way in from four yards out but a missed extra point left the lead at 13-7, and after an interception by C.J. Egrie on St. Joseph’s next possession, Patrick “Cheeks” Smith raced 75 yards for a touchdown that pushed the lead to 19-7. Spirit’s two-point conversion failed, and those special teams mistakes would ultimately prove costly.

“At halftime we were in the locker room and I was like, ‘come on guys, we need to step it up.’ We’ve been hot and beaten teams, so we needed to play with that same kind of energy,” Hunt said. “In the second half we came out and did just that. We’re ready for the playoffs — we’re ready for anybody. We don’t know what the future holds in terms of the playoffs but we’re ready for whatever comes our way.”

“I swear it’s a curse when we play Holy Spirit, we seem to always get off to horrible starts,” Lomax said. “At halftime, it was different than anything I’ve ever seen. Everyone was calm, nobody was flipping out and everybody was saying we’re going to win this game. I think we are the better team and we came out and showed that in the second half. There were a couple drives (in the first half) when they were beating us up a little bit, but it was mostly big plays. They had a couple long touchdowns and we felt like if we could eliminate those and just win first down we felt like we could win the game.”

St. Joseph’s offense came alive in the fourth quarter after the defensive unit held Spirit scoreless in the third. In the first minute of the final frame, Shertel found Cohl Mercado over the middle for a 5-yard touchdown pass to shave the lead to 19-14, and after a big fourth-down sack by Hunt and Lomax on Holy Spirit’s next drive the Wildcats took over at their own 46-yard line. They drove down to the Spirit 30 when Ross made an outstanding catch over the middle on a high pass from Shertel and raced untouched into the end zone. Shertel then ran in the conversion to give the Wildcats a 22-19 lead with 3:59 to go.

“Every time we play them they get up big on us but we always find a way to make it back. Today I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it all the way back but I know we have heart and I knew my guys were in it. We finished it, and it’s a good day today,” Hunt said.

St. Joseph clinched the top spot in the upcoming Non-Public B South playoffs and Holy Spirit likely will get the No. 2 seed, meaning that if the seeds hold true these two teams will meet again at Rutgers in a few weeks with a state championship on the line.

“Most likely we’ll see this team again, as long as we both take care of business (in the playoffs),” Lomax said. “It’s good to see what we made mistakes on and I think if we can play mistake-free football we can beat them again.”

What’s next: Both Holy Spirit and St. Joseph await first-round state playoff matchups next week.

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