DeMatha rallies late to stun St. John’s, wins fourth straight WCAC championship

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Stags' linebacker Grant Donaldson's shoestring tackle of St. John's running back Joachim Bangda saved a touchdown during the WCAC championship game Nov. 19. Photo courtesy of Ed King

BY CHRIS MCMANES — When it looked like they were going to fall one game short of a perfect season, somehow they found a way.

Trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter, DeMatha rallied to stun St. John’s, 34-29, in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game at the University of Maryland on Nov. 19.

By scoring the final 20 points, the Stags finished 12-0 and won their fourth straight WCAC title. It is the eighth undefeated season in their storied history and first in 10 years.

They accomplished this after giving up the most points they had all season and being outplayed for three-plus quarters.

“It wasn’t looking good for a while, and we were worried,” DeMatha Head Coach Elijah Brooks said. “But my players just knew if they continued to swing, continued to fight, that hopefully something would break. We got one more shot at it, and we knew we were going to capitalize on it.

“Credit to my guys for their will and their grit.”

No. 4 St. John’s (8-4) took a 29-14 lead with 10:19 to go in the game. The march to paydirt consumed seven minutes and 12 seconds in a contest the Cadets fully commanded most of the afternoon.

Things looked even better for the Northwest Washington school when it forced the Stags to punt on their next possession. The St. John’s student section was feeling so confident it began chanting “overrated, overrated” toward top-ranked DeMatha.

Not so fast.

Facing third-and-eight on their own 37, Ronald Cook fumbled a pitch from backup quarterback Maurice Bellan. Defensive lineman Jalen Brown recovered for the Stags, who took over on the Cadets’ 35-yard-line with 7:18 to play.

DeMatha senior quarterback Beau English’s second pass completion of the drive brought his team to the 17. He scrambled on the next play and carried the ball in for the Stags’ first score of the second half. Joe Hood’s extra point narrowed the St. John’s lead to 29-21 with 5:16 remaining.

Crossing Paths

DeMatha seized the momentum and sucked the life out of the Cadets when it recovered Hood’s ensuing kickoff at the St. John’s 1. The Cadets seemed to forget that once the kick travels 10 yards, it is a free ball. The Stags’ Nicolas Cross did not. Seeing the ball bouncing untouched around the goal line, he pursued it like a heat-seeking missile.

Before the ball was kicked, Cross said Brooks looked at him and mouthed the words, “Go get it.” He did just that.

“I thought it was going to go into the end zone,” Cross recalled. “It bounced and stayed at the 1-yard-line. I thought they were going to pick it up or down it or something like that. I just kept running down there. Someone [from St. John’s] touched it, and I pushed him out the way and fell on the ball and got the recovery.”

“Nick made a great play that we really needed,” junior linebacker/tight end Anthony Toro said. “It helped us boost our momentum and was a big part of the game.”

After a false start penalty, English found Toro for a 5-yard TD to bring DeMatha to within 29-27. Despite the two-point conversion pass falling incomplete, the Stags had just scored 13 points in 33 seconds.

Game on.

Following an 18-yard pass from Kasim Hill to Ronald Cook at the Cadets’ 41, St. John’s ran three straight times and picked up just four yards. Brooks used all three of DeMatha’s timeouts during the sequence. Only nine seconds ticked off the clock.

A 12-yard punt into swirling winds gave the Stags the ball on their 43 with 2:27 to play. English completed a pass to DeMarco Hellams for seven yards and then ran out of bounds at the end of a 16-yard run. With 2:15 left, DeMatha was still 34 yards from taking their first lead since the second quarter.

Four plays later, sophomore running back Myles Miree beat his man and made a diving catch in the end zone. English accounted for all 57 yards on the game-winning drive.

The Stags’ bench was flagged for rushing down to celebrate with Miree. The penalty set the kickoff back to their 25.

The Final Sequence

Hood’s kick came with Myles Canton holding the ball to prevent it from blowing off the tee. The boot went out of bounds without being touched. The Cadets chose to accept the 25-yard penalty from the spot of the kick. They took over at midfield with one timeout and 1:05 remaining.

On first down, Joseph Towns hauled in Hill’s pass and ran out of bounds at the DeMatha 34. Three incompletions later, St. John’s faced fourth-and-10.

Hill threw the ball over the middle. Cross tipped it right into Canton’s arms at the 20. It was the second time this season Canton ended the Cadets’ final drive with an interception. The senior safety weaved his way down the left sideline and brought the ball all the way to the St. John’s 1. WJLA ABC7 captured the play on video.

Hill, who has committed to play for Maryland next year, was otherwise brilliant playing on his future home field. He threw three scoring passes in the first half to guide the Cadets to a 19-14 halftime lead. With only half a field to go on the final drive of his prep career, he was more than capable of marching his team down for the go-ahead score.

The DeMatha defense, which played brilliantly all year, had other ideas.

“We changed up our coverage. We played more [man-to-man]. We had a four-man rush,” Toro said. “I feel like we just wanted it more. We put in the right personnel. We played our hardest and we got it done.”

At the end of Canton’s return, the Stags were penalized for another excessive celebration. That pushed the ball back to the 16. It didn’t matter. Only 29 seconds remained, and St. John’s could only stop the clock once. All English had to do was take a knee or two and the game would be over.

The players never got the chance.

Calvin Ashley, the Cadets’ 6-foot-7, 320-pound tackle, was injured on Canton’s run and lay motionless on the field. Brooks and St. John’s Coach Joe Casamento agreed to end the game as trainers and emergency personnel tended to Ashley. Fearing a spinal injury, they stabilized his head and neck and took him away by ambulance.

Both teams gathered at midfield to pray for Ashley’s well-being. When the senior Under Armour All-American and future Auburn Tiger was released from the hospital, he tweeted:

“I want to thank EVERYONE for their prayers today. I have been cleared from the hospital and will be fine. Thank you all so much!!”

Once Ashley was removed from the field and the two teams shook hands, DeMatha was free to enjoy the fruits of its league-record 24th championship.

Protecting the English Empire

English finished 15 of 20 for 184 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He was also the Stags’ leading ground gainer, toting the ball 13 times for 69 yards and one TD. He gave the Stags a 7-0 lead just 12 seconds into the contest with an 80-yard scoring aerial to senior Delante Hellams.

English, who hooked up with Hellams for three TDs in DeMatha’s 28-13 come-from-behind win over Good Counsel the week before, was asked how he maintained his clarity of thought on the biggest drive of his prep career.

“I just trusted in my guys. As soon as we started making plays at the end of the game, I knew we were going to take advantage of the momentum,” English said. “And that’s exactly what we did. We started executing and making the plays that we needed to win the game.”

English, selected first-team All-WCAC, quarterbacked the Stags to three conference championships. He deflected praise for his performance Saturday, Nov. 19, behind a reconfigured offensive line that had to replace injured Maryland recruit Marcus Minor in the playoffs.

Victor Oluwatimi, a three-year starter at center, took Minor’s place at left tackle. He played alongside Michael Holt (left guard), Zach Lyons (center), Austin Fontaine (right guard) and Evan Gregory (right tackle). While Holt moved into the starting lineup, the others switched positions to accommodate Minor’s absence.

“It was definitely tough, but they stepped up today in a huge way,” English said. “I’m so proud of all the guys. Losing a player like Marcus Minor, we got this win for him. It was a huge loss, but the guys who replaced him did a phenomenal job all day.”

Brooks, who has led DeMatha to a 43-5 record during its four-year reign atop the WCAC, was his peers’ choice for Coach of the Year. In the Stags’ jubilant locker room, he told his players, “This was our greatest masterpiece.”

Tom Ponton, the Hyattsville school’s director of development and 1978 graduate, tweeted: “Certainly one of the more amazing wins in DeMatha’s 70 years in any sport.”

Three touchdowns in a little over seven minutes put an exclamation point on one of the greatest seasons in Stags’ football history.

“We busted through in the fourth quarter,” English said. “Exactly when we needed to.”

Chris McManes has covered DeMatha football the past two years. In the fall, he became a Stags’ assistant baseball coach.