St. Mark’s sent DeAndre Davis back to return punts for the first time all season Friday night.
It turned out to be a brilliant decision.
Davis’ 35-yard punt return provided the final touchdown with 2:08 remaining to clinch the Spartans’ 21-7 victory over Cape Henlopen in the opening round of the DIAA Division I Football Tournament.
“They put me on special teams this week, and I just told my team I’m going to have an answer for them,” Davis said. “They set up the blocks, and I just got behind the wall and got the touchdown.”
The win pushed third-seeded St. Mark’s (9-2) into a semifinal rematch with second-seeded Salesianum at 7:30 p.m. next Saturday at Baynard Stadium. The Sals edged the Spartans 7-2 in the teams’ regular-season finale last Friday.
“Round two, let’s go,” St. Mark’s coach John Wilson said with a chuckle. “We didn’t hear the bell.”
The Spartans came out strong, scoring on their first two possessions. Michael Catalano’s 3-yard run and Zach Whitehead’s 24-yard pass to Davis made it 14-0 with 2:59 still remaining in the first quarter.
“Those two early drives were really important for us to get on the board early,” Wilson said. “I thought we played pretty well in all phases of the game. We could have been a little better, but I’ll take it.”
St. Mark’s relied on its defense the rest of the way. Midway through the second quarter, the Spartans stuffed the Vikings on fourth-and-goal at the 1 to get the ball back.
“Our defense has really held it together the entire season,” St. Mark’s defensive end Tyler Psenicska said. “It really helps our offense out when the defense keeps getting them the ball, no matter what happens.”
The Vikings missed a 37-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, then spent much of the second half in St. Mark’s territory. But the Spartans limited Cape’s wing-T rushing attack to just 85 yards on 36 carries.
“The wing-T is very tough, because they have so many different things to confuse the defense,” Psenicska said. “Somehow, we managed to get our reads right and stop it.”
The Vikings had only thrown 62 passes all season, but with their running game shut down they went to the air 22 times. Cape finally got on the board on Diaz Nardo’s 34-yard pass to Dumarius Gooch, pulling the Vikings within 14-7 with 6:26 to go.
A beautiful punt by St. Mark’s Matt Williams pinned Cape at its own 2 with 3:17 to play. The Vikings couldn’t make a first down, and decided to punt on fourth-and-9 with 2:17 left. That’s when Davis’ return put it away.
“They out-toughed us,” Cape coach Bill Collick said of St. Mark’s. “They made plays when they had to, and we didn’t. That’s just a lot about them and who they are.”
Still, it was another big step in the Vikings’ improvement under Collick. The veteran coach took over a 1-9 team in 2010, and Cape improved to 5-5 the first season, 8-2 last year and now 8-3 with a postseason bid in his third season.
“I’m proud of our program,” Collick said. “We’ve gone from castoffs to playoffs. But sometimes when you get here, it’s tougher to stay here. I want our kids to understand that.”