DENVILLE Paul Onorati is a senior captain on the Morris Catholic football team, an undersized defensive lineman who busts his rump on every single snap, collecting tackle after tackle.
As Onorati began to make preparations for his final grid campaign with the Crusaders, he wanted to make sure one message rang loud and clear.
“We can’t have the same reputation and tradition of being the same old Morris Catholic,” Onorati said. “That was basically what we spent the whole week doing. We were focusing on gaining respect.”
It’s hard to have the respect of local teams when you post the same 2-8 record in each of the previous five seasons prior to this year. The Crusaders last qualified for the NJSIAA state playoffs in 2009.
So Onorati and his teammates fought tooth and nail and then some Saturday afternoon in their season opener against Hopatcong.
However, that fight wasn’t good enough as the Crusaders couldn’t muster much of anything offensively until a long touchdown pass late in the game and fell to the visiting Chiefs, 14-7, in the season opener for both squads.
So did Onorati, who made 11 tackles and one sack, gain that respect with the effort the Crusaders put out?
“No,” Onorati said. “Not one bit. You don’t gain respect until you win.”
First-year Morris Catholic head coach John Heck tends to disagree with his captain and workhorse.
“I haven’t been around what’s happened in the past,” Heck said. “But we’re trying to change the attitude in a big way. These kids are hungry. This is not the same old Morris Catholic team. I can assure you of that.”
The Crusaders did a great job of limiting Hopatcong’s rushing attack to only three first downs in the first half and did a phenomenal job of keeping the Chiefs out of the end zone — for the most part.
The Chiefs have qualified for the NJSIAA North 1 Group II playoffs in each of the past two years, so Heck knew what he was facing.
“We showed great effort against a great team,” Heck said “That’s what I envisioned about this game, and that’s what our kids did. I’m proud of them. They gave a great effort. It’s all I could ask for. I wanted to get the win.”
The Crusaders and Chiefs were matching zeroes for the first quarter, but the Chiefs got on the board midway through the second quarter. Junior fullback Jake Wilkerson broke free and wiggled his way into the end zone on an 8-yard run with 7:30 left in the first half.
The score remained that way at the half. It was an offensive struggle for both teams in the first half, as the Crusaders had only 24 yards of total offense in the first half and the Chiefs had just 72 yards — all on the ground.
“Offensively, we struggled,” Heck said. “Hopatcong had us played pretty well, and they did a great job on us, shutting us down.”
Wilkerson added another score, this one from the 9-yard-line with 7:36 remaining in the game, a touchdown that seemed to put the game away.
The Crusaders couldn’t do much of anything offensively until late in the fourth quarter, when quarterback Zach Poreman hooked up with speedy receiver Jayner Gorospe on a 90-yard bomb with 4:23 left, slicing a two-touchdown lead in half and giving the faithful Crusader fans something to hoot and holler about.
The Crusader fans got even more excited when they got the ball back with 2:07 remaining with the hope of perhaps tying the game. Poreman completed two passes to get to beyond midfield but misfired on two straight passes, then had his final attempt of the day intercepted by fellow quarterback Vincent Giordano at the Hopatcong 8-yard line with 29.4 seconds left.
“There are some positives we can take from this,” Poreman said. “But we still have a lot of things to work on. We gave it our all. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way.”
“We’re going to get better,” Heck said. “We had every intention of winning this game. We expected to win this game.”
But the Crusaders know that they have to do more offensively than just one 90-yard bomb late in the game. You can’t win that way.
“Our offense didn’t run the ball,” said Heck, whose team finished with just 51 yards rushing on 30 attempts, certainly not a winning recipe. “We were close, but offensively we struggled.”
And there lies the battle to change the image that has lasted for the past five seasons.