PJ tops Sparta in thrilling final seconds
By PETER STEIN
SPARTA — Game of the year? Game of the decade? Game of the century? Game for the ages?
Well, that might depend on your perspective. But Saturday afternoon's Sparta-Pope John football game should be penciled in as all of the above, regardless of who won and who lost.
The Lions' thrilling 31-27 comeback win over Sparta at Pope John High School had to be goose-bump-inducing even for the most casual football fan. Nick Esposito's eight-yard, go-ahead touchdown catch with 35 ticks left on the clock, and teammate Drew Daniel's game-clinching interception 25 seconds later, iced what had already been a high school football treat for almost 48 minutes.
Sometimes well-hyped games turn out to be duds. So although Sparta and Pope John each came into Saturday's clash at 4-0, there was no guarantee their game would be worthy of those records.
Was it ever worthy.
Esposito and Daniel applied the finishing touches, the last brush strokes that enabled the Lions to stay unbeaten, while dealing their neighbors from down the road a heart-wrenching defeat.
"We've got a long way to go," Pope John head coach Brian Carlson said, "but obviously, this is a big win for us."
"We got better today as a football team," Sparta head coach Frank Marchiano said. "Even though the win's not there, we actually got better today as a football team. And that's something that we're going to look to build on."
After a game like that, each coach had to salute his opponent.
"They're a good team that has good players," Marchiano said. "They do a good job of getting the ball to those players. ... They're a good team that's well-coached and they have a lot of kids who can go out there and hurt you."
"Sparta's a very, very good team," Carlson said. "They gave us everything they had, obviously. They really tested us to the limit. ... They're well-coached, great fan base. They bring a lot. ... I wouldn't be surprised if Sparta's in the (state) finals against Ramapo again."
Both teams now soldier on toward their goals of winning state championships in their respective sections — North 1, Group 3 for Sparta; Non-Public Group 3 for Pope John. But it was the Lions taking full control of the NJAC American Division, inching a step closer to repeating as division titleists.
Pope John also became the area's last undefeated team. All in a hard day's work.
The two football heavyweights traded jabs, left hooks and uppercuts throughout the afternoon, with Esposito's touchdown serving as the staggering blow. Pope John had trailed, 27-24, when regaining possession late in the fourth quarter after its defense forced Sparta to punt.
"We just told them, ‘We need the ball back,'" Carlson said of his gritty defenders. "The defense doesn't really get the P.R. that it should. They make big plays ... They're a resilient unit."
"We just wanted to execute and make the plays that we knew we were capable of," Lions defensive lineman Noa Merritt said. "We felt that the momentum was on their (Sparta's) side and one big play would shift it. So we just concentrated and buckled down and did what we had to do."
But the offense had to do its part, too, after taking over at the Pope John 38.
"We went out there, we were calm, we were focused, we were confident," Lions quarterback Sonny Abramson said. "And we just knew that if we did our jobs, we'd just drive down the field and score."
Yet soon after the Lions went back on offense, they were staring at third-and-4 from their own 44, and needed another big-time play or two in a game chock full of big-time plays. On that third down, Abramson looked deep, trying to find wideout Austin Bailey. Abramson lofted a pass in Bailey's direction, but Sparta defensive back Teddy Fischer was keeping stride with Bailey, and it looked at first as though Fischer had a good chance at deflecting or even intercepting the ball.
Bailey, though, leapt high for it and reeled it in at the Spartans' 20. He wound up at the 14, putting the Lions in great position.
"Huge third-down play," Carlson said. "Austin can make plays."
Three plays later, Pope John had a second-and-goal from Sparta's 3, transformed into a second-and-goal from the 8 when illegal movement pushed the Lions back.
From there, Pope John went for the winner. Abramson looked around, then looked right and found Esposito open. Abramson tossed a screen pass to Esposito not far past the line of scrimmage, and after Esposito made the catch, he barreled in for the touchdown.
"It was a great check-down by Sonny there," Carlson said. "We call it a choice route, so everyone kind of choices up. And then we let the running back make a choice if he wants to run inside or outside."
"We called a play that we had practiced a lot," Abramson said. "We felt comfortable running it down there. I knew what to look for; they had shown a tendency to blitz a strong-side ‘backer. And they did. And they didn't send anyone out to account for the running back (Esposito). And he was wide open, and that's why I got him the ball. And he did the rest."
"The offensive line did a great job protecting him (Abramson)," Esposito said. "And at the last second, he looked and threw it to me. And I got in."
Devyn Sevean kicked the extra point to make it a 31-27 game. The Spartans still had those 35 seconds to work with, and did get to their own 48. But when Daniel snared the interception near Pope John's 25 and returned it to the Lions' 43, they were a mere kneeldown from going 5-0.
"Words can't describe how big this is," Pope John's all-purpose back Noah Brown said after hauling in two touchdown catches. "This is why you play the game. This is why during the summer, you've got to practice two-a-days, three-a-days."
Pope John won despite not leading until the fourth quarter. Sparta built a 10-0 advantage in the second period, a 13-6 edge by halftime, and a 20-6 lead after Matt Seville's 25-yard touchdown pass to Nick Shlala on a third-and-14, followed by John Coleman's extra point, with 9:19 left in the third.
Pope John roared right back with a 46-yard scoring pass from Abramson to Bailey, and a 95-yard dazzler by Brown, who caught a short pass from Abramson deep in Lions territory and came up with at least 90 yards after the catch.
Sparta showed a little pluck of its own, coming right back with a 67-yard touchdown drive. The big play was a 46-yard pass to Fischer, who did his own impressing in the YAC department, moving the Spartans to Pope John's 9. From there, Sparta hammered away with Lucas Faria, who finally dove home on fourth-and-goal from inside the Lions' 1.
Both teams came up big. But Pope John was the last to do so.
"Carlson says, ‘focus and finish,'" Esposito said. "And that's what we did. ... We focused and we finished."