H.S. Football: Pope John grabs victory from Sparta
By PETER STEIN
SPARTA — The road warriors still rule. And the streak is over.
For the third straight year, the Pope John-Sparta rivalry football game was won by the road team, as the Lions pulled out a 14-10 victory over the Spartans on Saturday at Sparta High School.
Pope John also brought Sparta's 13-game regular-season win streak to a screeching halt. The Spartans had last endured a regular-season defeat on Nov. 5, 2010.
Aside from those big achievements, Pope John grabbed the inside track in the NJAC American Division title chase, improving to 4-0 against division opponents while knocking defending American champ Sparta to 3-1 in league play.
Not a bad day's work for the Lions.
"We came to win," said Pope John's second-year head coach Brian Carlson, who earned his first victory in the Route 517 rivalry. "The kids played great, man. Both teams played great."
"It was huge," said Lions running back Noah Brown, who scored the winning touchdown. "Any time you beat your crosstown rival in a game like this, it's wonderful."
"It feels so good. Everyone's so happy," said Sonny Abramson, Pope John's freshman quarterback. "Especially against a team like Sparta. It's great to be able to come out of here with a victory, and I'm glad I could share this victory with everyone."
The Lions, though a mostly-young team, showed poise in what may prove to be their toughest road game of the season, short of the playoffs. They punched home the difference-making score with 6:45 left in the fourth quarter, when Brown battled his way in from about the one-inch line on fourth-and-goal.
The Lions' defense staved off Sparta's last offensive push, stopping it at the Pope John 29. And the Lions' offense then shrunk the remaining 3:19 off the clock.
It was a titanic win for Pope John, which survived despite missing early opportunities to build a substantial lead. The Lions drove to Sparta's 11 on their opening series, only to attempt a field goal that sailed wide left.
Late in the first quarter, Pope John marched all the way to Sparta's 5, but was again turned away, this time when Rob Burns deflected an Abramson pass and Jake Davis picked it off at the 1.
"The first quarter, we had a chance to punch in two scores," Carlson said. "We didn't."
Sparta also had a first-half drive end with an interception, when Jeremy Rodriguez picked off Jake Melville at the Lions' 45 and returned the ball to Sparta's 47. The Spartans missed a second-quarter field goal as well.
Pope John finally snapped the scoreless tie with a 80-yard drive that was highlighted by a 29-yard Brown run to the Sparta 12, and after an illegal motion penalty, capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Abramson to Dashawn Chatelier. It was a short pass in the right flat, and Chatelier was able to scoot into the end zone, thanks in part to an Austin Bailey block.
"Austin does a great job of blocking on the perimeter for the receivers who catch the ball," Abramson said. "He did what he did, and he gave DC the perimeter, and DC ran and scored. It was great."
"I would have never gotten in there if Austin Bailey didn't make that block," Chatelier said.
After Dan Cunico booted the extra point, Sparta opened its ensuing possession with a 33-yard run by Melville, helping set up a 35-yard John Coleman field goal that made it a 7-3 game with 44 seconds left in the half.
The Spartans took their first lead of the game late in the third quarter, with a 74-yard touchdown march that was kick-started by Codie Aromando's 51-yard run. The drive appeared to be complete when Melville found Nick Munro with a 10-yard touchdown strike in the back of the end zone. But an illegal man downfield erased that, and pushed Sparta back five yards.
On the next play, though, Melville weaved his way for a 15-yard touchdown run, and with Coleman's extra point, the Spartans were up, 10-7, with 39 seconds to go in the third.
Pope John fought right back. The Lions trekked 61 yards on their next possession, fueled in part by a 27-yard pass from Abramson to Bailey. Pope John soon drove to the 1, and had what appeared to be an easy first-and-goal situation.
But not so fast. On first down, Brown was stopped for less than the necessary yard. On second down, an Abramson keeper was stopped shy of the goal line. And on third down, Brown was halted about a foot away from paydirt by Sparta defenders Michael Boryeskne and Reagan Penner.
So it came down to fourth-and-goal with just over seven minutes to go. A fourth-down offside penalty moved the Lions even closer, and finally, with 6:50 left, Brown bulled his way in, with the help of some blocking.
"I trusted my line," Brown said. "I just told Coach to give me the ball and I was going to get in."
"I knew we would punch it in," Abramson said. "It was a matter of when and how, but I knew we would score."
"We wanted to give the fans a little something to think about," Carlson joked. "Kicking a field goal would've been easy."