GLASSBORO – On its first possession, the St. Joseph High School’s football team lost the heart of its offensive line.
But just one play after Wildcats’ left tackle Derek Lomax, a three-year starter, was carted off the Rowan University field with a dislocated left ankle, St. Joseph showed its resiliency as quarterback Salaam Horne ran for a 15-yard touchdown.
The rest of the game Sunday was played on sheer guts by the Wildcats – and for Lomax.
“We just kept battling,” said St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco after the emotional 19-6 victory over Hudson Catholic in the Non-Public Group 2 state title game.
“We made a lot of mistakes … but we found a way to win.”
But, as his teammates lamented afterwards, Lomax wasn’t there to celebrate the program’s seventh straight state title, which equaled the school record of consecutive championships set from 2000 to 2006.
“He was a big part of the offense, he is a great kid and he didn’t deserve to get hurt,” said Salaam Horne, a senior. “We knew we had to bounce back and pick it up for him.”
The rest of the St. Joseph seniors walked off the field for the final time together 4-for-4 as state champions.
“Many people don’t have the chance to win one championship, so to win four is great,” said senior A’Laam Horne, Salaam’s twin, after scoring a touchdown on offense and defense.
Fourth-seeded Hudson Catholic finished 10-2 in pursuit of the school’s first state title in the 50th season of the program.
“They are physical, they get to the football,” Sacco said about the Hawks.
Second-seeded St. Joseph also finished 10-2, but won the 25th state title in the proud program’s history.
“These kids at St. Joe find a way to win in big games and this was a big game,” said Sacco, who is 298-58-5 in 35 seasons.
St. Joseph, ranked No. 7 in the Courier-Post Mean 15, lost the season opener to St. Augustine 33-14 and then were blanked 29-0 to Mt. St. Joseph (Md.) on Oct. 10. But the Wildcats go out winners of their last seven, outscoring opponents 263-64.
“It was just a steady fight,” said Elijah Hardee, a junior defensive end. “That is what they preach, to do your jobs, this is a business at St. Joes. You got to do your job and the outcome will be that way it is – seven straight.”
The Wildcats, who last had a losing season in 1976, won their 18th championship since non-public began in 1993.
“There is definitely a big legacy here winning state championships and this year we were doubted so much that we decided to come out here and do what we do best and win,” said sophomore defensive back Matt Tucker, who had an interception.
On the Wildcats’ first drive, as the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Lomax was being lifted into the ambulance on the other end of the field, Salaam Horne was weaving 15 yards for a touchdown.
“It was big because it allowed us to settle down,” Salaam Horne said. “A lot of us were emotional when he got hurt. We had to do it for Derek. He is our brother.”
The Wildcats doubled their lead on A’Laam Horne’s 22-yard run with 5:01 left in third quarter. The conversion run failed and St. Joseph settled for a 12-0 advantage.
“I talked to our line and said someone had to step up,” A’Laam said. “No one really can replace him, but they came together and got the job done.”
A’Laam Horne did his job on defense, too, returning a fumble 54 yards for a touchdown with 7:26 left in fourth quarter. Eric Graziano added the kick for a seemingly comfortable 19-0 lead.
However, Hudson Catholic answered with Tyheem Burno returning the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown with 7:12 left.
Then the Hawks recovered the onsides kick on the St. Joseph 36-yard line. But, the Wildcats wouldn’t let this game for their fallen teammate slip away.
“It was a big blow to the team,” Hardee said about Lomax. “The whole season he was our leader. He hyped us up at before the game and at half time, so we knew we had to pull it out for him.”
Kevin Callahan; (856) 486-2424; kcallahan@GannettNJ.com
ST. JOSEPH 19, HUDSON CATHOLIC 6
Play of the game: St. Joseph seized a 19-0 lead on A’Laam Horne’s 54-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
Player of the game: A’Laam Horne, a senior running back and defensive back, scored touchdowns on both offense and defense, adding a 22-yard run from scrimmage.
Well said: “We are state champs for another whole year.” – St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco