By CHRIS McMANES — No. 1 St. John’s scored two touchdowns off turnovers and had a goal-line stand to defeat No. 2 DeMatha, 13-7, in Landover on Oct. 26.
The Cadets won their 15th straight to improve to 8-0 and 3-0 in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC). The Stags (6-2, 2-1 WCAC) had their six-game winning streak halted.
DeMatha had a prime opportunity to take a 14-13 lead in the second half but got rebuffed by the St. John’s defense four times from the 1-yard line. Eric Najarian was stuffed three times attempting quarterback sneaks.
The teams switched sides to start the fourth quarter, but the move to the north end of Wilson Stadium yielded the same result. On fourth down from about the 1-foot line, running back Marshawn Lloyd attempted to jump into the end zone between the right guard and right tackle.
He was swarmed by Cadet defenders, and St. John’s took over at the 1. Tre’ Williams, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman, played a key role plugging up the middle. Najarian was asked if St. John’s got a good push on those four running plays.
“I can’t really put my finger on it exactly, but when it comes down to it [and] we’re on that inch-yard line, we’ve got to figure out a way to score,” Najarian said. “I’m confident that we’ll come in, we’ll do the work and we’ll figure out how to get that done.”
Stags eight-year coach Elijah Brooks said it was a tough game to lose.
“We had our opportunities,” said Brooks, who had never lost to St. John’s as either a player or coach until last season. “We just didn’t capitalize.”
With a steady rain falling throughout the night, neither team could muster much offense on the damp carpet. Najarian fumbled after being hit hard on a blitz by defensive back Quinten Johnson. Freshman linebacker Justin Gibson collected the ball at the DeMatha 32-yard line and returned it to the 7.
Senior Ronald Cook swept right on the next snap to give the Cadets a 7-0 lead with 3:35 to go in the opening period. Another Stags fumble set up St. John’s on the DeMatha 31. Junior quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava ran for 14 yards on first down, and Cook scored from the 10. The Cadets couldn’t get the extra point attempt off, leaving the score 13-0.
“Hats off to St. John’s. They made more plays than we did,” Brooks said. “We kind of put ourselves behind the eight-ball with turnovers early. They capitalized on them. So, we’re going to go back to the drawing board and get better.”
Dominic Logan-Nealy returned the ensuing kickoff 38 yards, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against St. John’s gave the Stags the ball on the Cadets’ 32. On third-and-nine, Najarian scrambled to his right and found DeMarcco Hellams along the sideline for 15 yards.
Two plays later from the 14, Lloyd went left, got a nice block from Hellams and scored to slice the St. John’s lead to 13-7 with 39 seconds left before halftime.
The second half got underway after some St. John’s players chose to warm up beyond the DeMatha sidelines. A few Cadets were in the Stags’ bench area and talking smack to their counterparts’ coaches and players.
With a little over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Joshua Wallace intercepted Maiava on the DeMatha 17 and returned it to the Stags’ 46.
After Najarian and Hellams connected for eight yards, DeMatha slowly made its way toward the St. John’s end zone. Two pass interference penalties and a holding call kept the drive alive, the last two by senior defensive back Aman Greenwood.
The Stags set up with a first-and-goal at the 5. Lloyd’s four-yard rush brought it to the 1. Four attempts later, the Cadets took over. Cook, who rushed 17 times for 117 yards, took a pitch in the end zone on first down and gained three yards. He had 21 yards on his next two carries, and a 20-yard run by sophomore Colby McDonald (54 rushing yards) moved the ball to the St. John’s 48.
The DeMatha defense tightened and put its longtime opponent into a fourth-and-18 situation on the Stags’ 37. Junior George Alvarez gathered a high snap and got a 29-yard punt off against heavy pressure.
DeMatha took its final possession needing to go 92 yards for the win. The Deer Men moved to their own 43 before Najarian was hit hard trying to make a first down and lost control of the ball.
The teams are favored to meet in the conference title game.
“Coming into the season, our goal was to win the WCAC championship,” Najarian said. “That’s still in front of us and what we’re going to come in every day and work for.”
St. John’s on the move?
Reports have surfaced that organizers of a national high school football conference are interested in St. John’s. Others under consideration are St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) and three California schools: Mater Dei, De La Salle and St. John Bosco. Each are ranked in the top 7 of the latest USA Today Super 25 Expert Rankings.
Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas, which has thoroughly dominated Nevada football over the past decade, might also be approached.
The conference would reportedly have up to 16 teams, eight in the east and eight in the west. Games would be televised and would conclude with national playoffs.
St. John’s already plays a far-reaching schedule. Its five non-conference games this year were against teams from Georgia (2), Missouri, Alabama and Florida. The Cadets’ game against IMG was cancelled because of concerns over Hurricane Florence. St. John’s is the reigning WCAC champion. Its quarterback, Sol-Jay Maiava, transferred from Hawaii.
The Cadets would likely remain in the WCAC in all other boys and girls sports.
Ranked WCAC teams set for semifinals
DeMatha remained second in The Washington Post Top 20. The other ranked WCAC Capital Division teams also held their position.
The Stags (6-2, 2-1 WCAC), who play in Forestville against McNamara (3-6, 0-3) on Saturday at 2 p.m., have clinched a home playoff game in the WCAC semifinals. DeMatha will host No. 5 Good Counsel (6-3, 2-2).
The Falcons concluded their regular season last week with a 31-0 victory over McNamara. They can use the extra week to give starting quarterback Cameron Snell more time to heal from injury. Snell has missed the past two games.
Darion Crawford and Chase Williams alternated series under center in the win against the Mustangs. Williams was promoted from the JV and threw a 15-yard touchdown pass. He graduated from St. Jerome Academy in May.
No. 6 Gonzaga (7-2, 1-2 WCAC) hosts No. 1 St. John’s (8-0, 3-0) on Saturday at 3 p.m. They will meet again at St. John’s the following week.
Stags Coach Elijah Brooks said his team needs to refocus and continue to improve.
“Hopefully we take care of business next week and see how the playoff seedings come down,” he said. “It’s time to get ready for playoff football.”
Paul VI leads the WCAC Metro Division. The other three playoff teams will be Bishop O’Connell, St. Mary’s Ryken and Archbishop Carroll.
Both divisional semifinal playoff winners will meet for their respective championships at Catholic University on Sunday, Nov. 18.
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a former sports writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisMcManes1.