Pope John clinches share of American Division title
By PETER STEIN
SPARTA — Pope John's football team needed only to outscore Morris Knolls by a point for a share of the NJAC American Division title.
A 40-point win did the trick just the same.
The Lions guaranteed themselves at least an American Division co-championship by thumping Knolls, 69-29, on Saturday at Pope John High School.
Both the Lions and Golden Eagles had come in with 5-0 division records, but Pope John emerged with the resounding win. If the Lions (7-0 overall) can top Mount Olive next Friday, they will be outright division champs for the second straight year.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, Pope John knows it will have some part of the division title, another banner to raise in the gym.
"That was goal number one and the kids have done a great job with that," said Brian Carlson, who has now guided the Lions to American Division championships in two of his three years as Pope John's head coach.
"That was a good team we played today," Carlson added. "We were just hitting on all cylinders."
"It feels good. That (division title) was one of our goals going into the season," said Lions junior running back Nick Esposito, who rang up four rushing touchdowns on Saturday.
"We're going to celebrate it tonight," Lions senior tight end Ryan Izzo said of the title, after notching a pair of touchdown catches to help secure it. "But tomorrow, we're just going to get back to work and focus on getting a state championship."
Pope John's claim for a piece of the division crown began early. On each of the Lions' first two plays from scrimmage, both unfolding from their own 39, sophomore quarterback Sonny Abramson had passes broken up. On the third play, though, he lofted a perfect over-the-shoulder pass to wideout Austin Bailey, who caught it in stride at Morris Knolls' 30 and kept on striding — all the way for a touchdown.
Devyn Sevean kicked the first of six successful extra points, and Pope John was up 7-0 with just 21 seconds gone by in the game.
Morris Knolls, however, battled right back. Thanks to a personal-foul penalty on the ensuing kickoff, Knolls began at its own 47, then pieced together a 12-play touchdown march, capped off by Mike Marra's one-yard scoring dive. Joe Fullum's extra point tied it with 6:22 remaining in the first quarter.
Pope John, though, quickly regained control. On the Lions' next series, they needed just four plays to travel 63 yards for a touchdown. After two plays moved Pope John to its own 49, Abramson threw a pass to Izzo at the Golden Eagles' 40. Izzo then turned upfield, broke a tackle, maneuvered himself away from other tackles and headed toward paydirt.
Izzo uncharacteristically stumbled at the Knolls' 7, thwarting his mad touchdown dash. But his reception and yards after-the-catch were good for a 44-yard pass play.
Esposito took it from there, sweeping right for a seven-yard touchdown run, and with Sevean's extra point, Pope John took a 14-7 edge with 4:37 to play in the first.
The Lions' next series began at the Morris Knolls 44, and after a 10-yard run by Esposito, he took another handoff and swept right again, this time for a 34-yard touchdown run that, along with Sevean's extra point, made it a 21-7 game with 2:46 still to go in the opening period.
Morris Knolls drew to within a touchdown again on a seven-yard Marra run and Fullum extra point with just 20 seconds left in the first, but the Lions still managed to score another touchdown before the quarter was over. On first and 10 from Pope John's own 30, Abramson threw a short pass to Esposito, who broke loose down the left sideline, gaining 57 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Morris Knolls 13.
From there, Abramson tossed a fade to Izzo in the left side of the end zone, giving Pope John a 27-14 lead with no time left in the first period.
The Lions carried that momentum into the second quarter, going up by 20 on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Abramson to Izzo, followed by Sevean's extra point. And soon afterward, Pope John struck yet again.
Though the Lions' next series — which was started by Andrew Nieves' fumble recovery at the Pope John 42 — fizzled at that same yard-line, they struck gold anyway. Pope John lined up to punt, but the ball was snapped to Noah Brown, who darted straight ahead, then soared down the left sideline and jogged the last few yards for a score.
Pope John went for two and got it when Abramson threw toward Brown in the right side of Morris Knolls' end zone, and Brown leapt over a Knolls defender to reel in the conversion catch.
With that, the Lions were ahead 42-14, and were well on their way to an American Division title repeat.