Pine-Richland comes up short, St. Josephs wins AAAA title in thriller, 49-41
It was no doubt the best game this reporter has seen in a long time. Quite possibly the best title game I’ve ever seen. This was David vs. Goliath. Only this time, David’s stone came up just inches short of the knockout. With the clock showing zero, Pine-Richland qb Ben DiNucci scrambled just one more time, blockers cleared the path and the first 4,000 yard passer in Pa. history launched a 32 yard prayer. “Every time he took the snap … my heart jumped out of my chest. We didn’t have an answer for him in the second half. He is without a doubt the best quarterback we’ve faced all year and I don’t understand why he doesn’t have a long list of D1 offers,” said Hawk head coach Gabe Infante. DiNucci’s pass bounced off a crowd of receivers in the end zone and was eventually intercepted to end a furious comeback by a team that never gave up.
St. Joes led 14- 0 midway through the 2nd quarter thanks to a 56 yard pass from Jack Clements to Olimde Zaccheaus and a 28 yard td pass to James Bell. “Even in that first half, my guys never gave up. They’re incredible fighters with giant hearts,” said Ram head coach Eric Kasperowicz.
Midway through the 2nd quarter Ram running back Connor Slomka took a handoff and was injured on a tackle, fumbling the ball away. St. Joes fumbled it back at the 50 and with just over 3 minutes to go in the half, Kasperowicz sent in back up RB Earnest Williams. On his first carry he burst straight up the middle for 30 yards, then 8 more setting up a Mike Merhaut 12 yard td reception to make it 14-7.
The Hawks failed to get a first down and punted to the PR 33. DiNucci scrambled and hit Merhaut, then D’ondre Gastion to move the ball to the Hawk 48. Then the shifty qb, ball swinging around in one hand like a magicians toy just daring defenders to grab it, scrambled for 24 yards while avoiding tacklers and slipped out of bounds at the 14. Williams did the rest, rushing three times and getting into the end zone with just 30 seconds remaining in the half.
“Man, I knew we had to do something to take the wind out of his sails but I didn’t know how,” said Hawk LB Nick Vandevere. “I just didn’t know how”. Infante thought he had the answer. “I wanted to punch them in the gut so that’s why we went for the onside (kick).” De’Andre Swift got things rolling with a hard fought, determined 58 yard td run to start the second half. “Man, I never saw a young kid like that so fast. We had a really hard time with him,” said Kasperowicz. Swift had 226 yards on 23 carries for the Hawks.
Following the td to start the 2nd half, Infante had his players ready and surprised the Rams with an onside kick that they recovered. Infante then sent in a crazy, double reverse screen play that eventually saw the ball go into the hands of Swift and he did the rest going 48 yards to put the Hawks up by 14. St. Joe’s offense kept the Rams on their heels with quick bursts from Swift and James Bell. Before long they were up 35-14.
But the Rams never gave up. Facing a 2nd and 25 from their own 49, DiNucci threw to a covered Gastion but he somehow made an incredible leaping catch and went down at the 3. Slomka returned to the line up and moved his team closer with a three yard run. 35-21. “I think that was the one that gave me the confidence and swagger I like to have,” said DiNucci.
St. Joes struck right back to go up 42-21 with 9:25 to play. Then it happened. “I don’t know man, we just didn’t want to go home losers. We ain’t never done that, you know, give up like that,” said Merhaut. The Rams, led by a deceptively fast DiNucci, mounted a furious comeback. Battaglia made a sensational 55 yard catch at the 5 and then a 4 yard td reception. Gastion got a 23 yard td reception and finally, with just 2:15 to play, Gastion again scored, this time from 31 yards out. 20 points in 6 minutes. 42-41. “Man, I knew as soon as we got possession we were going for the win,” said Kasperowicz who had some last minute heroics of his own 21 years ago as qb at North Hills, scoring on a 2 point conversion to come from behind and win a title. “We had the momentum, that’s what we do. We go”. DiNucci took the snap and was under immediate pressure from Hawk LB Joe Dumond. The shifty UPenn commit ran right, saw his man in the end zone and tossed the ball back across his body. His receiver slipped to the turf and the ball bounced off his hands. Game over. or……..
De’Andre Swift burst through and scored for the Hawks to seemingly put the game away. “When I saw there was still 1:49 left I was scared as hell,” said Infante. “That’s all they did. We watched them over and over again. Those guys have no quit in them, so we knew it was going to go down to the wire. I was not comfortable at all.” Had Swift just gone down, the Hawks could have run the clock out. But you don’t teach your players to quit like that on a play.
“That was crazy, what a game. Just WOW!” said Kasperowicz.
Game notes that need to be read:
-DiNucci became the first 4,000 passer in PA history in the third quarter.
-Four touchdown passes tied a record for the finals set by Berwick’s Ron Powlus in 1992.
-32 of 46 for 383 yards by DiNucci is a PIAA title game record.
-Mike Herhaut set a game record with 14 receptions.
-Battaglia, Gastion and Merhaut all had 100 yards receiving, the most 100 yard receivers for any team in a title game.
-90 points was the second most in AAAA final history.
-1,147 combined yards is a title game record.
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