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H.S. Football: PJ machine keeps rolling as Lions race past Vernon

Posted: Oct 13, 2012 10:37 PM EDT

SPARTA — Don't blink, or you might miss a Pope John score.

That's how fast the Lions' football team can find the end zone. Their quick-strike capabilities often have a way of pushing opponents out of reach.

Vernon was tasked with trying to stop the Lions in Saturday's NJAC American Division showdown.

But Pope John kept putting those bolt-of-lightning scores on the board, transforming a close game into a 45-21 victory at Pope John High School.

"They're a good football team, and we saw that on film," Vernon coach Chuck Tepper said of the Lions.

"They've got great athletes. You've got to play a perfect game (against them). And we didn't play a perfect game, but we played pretty good.

"We played pretty tough. Our kids are tough, we work hard. Today, we got beat. Next Saturday, we've got another team."

"Vernon did a good job," Pope John coach Brian Carlson said. "They're very competitive. I've seen them play. They play 48 minutes. We gave it everything we had. We played the way we're supposed to. I think we just wore at them. We made big plays."

In doing so, the Lions won their fifth straight since dropping their season opener at Randolph. The Vikings, meanwhile, fell to 3-3 and had their two-game win streak snapped. In American Division play, Pope John stayed unbeaten at 5-0, while Vernon was knocked two games back at 3-2.

The Vikings were able to move the ball on Saturday, putting together a few sustained drives that kept the high-octane Lions off the field.

"That was the plan," Tepper said. "It worked well, but not well enough."

It was Vernon that found the end zone first.

A scoreless opening quarter ended with the Vikes on a drive that began at their own 28. They marched to the Pope John 37, and from there, Justin Dinelle did some nifty running to pick up 20 yards.

On the next play, Travis Pappas ran left, barreled toward the end zone and lunged forward to complete a 17-yard scoring run.

Owen Pullis knocked home the extra point, and with 10:21 remaining in the second quarter, Vernon led, 7-0.

Pope John, however, needed only five plays to answer.

The biggest of those plays was a leftside hitch to Brown, who beat one-and-one coverage to connect with quarterback Sonny Abramson on a 49-yard pass play that brought the Lions to Vernon's 17.

Three plays later, Brown swept left for an 11-yard touchdown, thanks in part to a Nick Esposito block.

After Dan Cunico booted the first of six extra points, the game was knotted at 7 with 9:15 to go before halftime.

Pope John scored on its next series as well, this time with a drive that was a bit more sustained, lasting 10 plays. The Lions' biggest gain was a leaping catch by Austin Bailey that set his team up at Vernon's 8. Two plays later, Brown plunged home from a yard out to give Pope John a one-touchdown advantage with 5:14 remaining in the second quarter.

Vernon's next possession ended with a punt from its own 24, a play that resulted in Pope John's fourth punt-return touchdown in the last five weeks. This time it was Mason Shaw soaring 54 yards for a score, and with Cunico's boot, the Lions were up, 21-7, with 2:48 left in the half.

It was then time for the Vikings to do some quick-striking of their own. First, Dinelle returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards to midfield. Four plays later, with Vernon at the Lions' 37, Tyler Soltes completed a pass to Brian Mills a yard or two shy of the Pope John goal line. Mills fought his way into the end zone, and with Pullis' second extra point, the Vikes had closed to within seven again.

But the clock still had 1:30 left, which is a good chunk of time for Pope John's high-flying spread offense. After Tom Adams secured Vernon's squib kickoff, the Lions drove from their own 45 to inside the Vikings' 4. Time wound down to 2.5 seconds remaining before halftime, so Cunico had to kick a 21-yard field goal, stretching the margin to 24-14 at the break.

Vernon received the second half's opening kickoff, but things quickly pivoted the Lions way. A Drew Daniel interception gave Pope John possession, and on the very next play, Abramson connected with Bailey on a 67-yard scoring pass, which included Bailey dashing the remaining 25 yards to the end zone.

Cunico's kick made it 31-14, and the Vikings were kept at arm's length the rest of the way.

Vernon needs to get back to work quickly, with a game next week at Morris Hills, another team capable of putting up basketball-type scoring numbers.

"This group will play with anybody," Tepper said. "This group works hard, they'll play. They played today against the best team in our league. We'll be there next Saturday, I guarantee you."