SPARTA – It’s hard to tell what Red Bank Catholic’s players were more excited about as a result of senior Dylan Murphy’s three touchdown runs and a 21-14 victory over Pope John Regional Saturday. Advancing in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III playoffs in what’s supposed to be reloading year had been a goal, but so has getting a chance to match programs with upstart St. John Vianney in the semifinals next week.
RBC will visit undefeated and top-seeded St. John Vianney in Holmdel on Friday night, the first time the teams will have played since an RBC 45-0 victory in 2013.
“St. John Vianney is a different team than when we played them when I was a sophomore,’’ Murphy said. “It’s going to be a live atmosphere. We all know that. We have to come back and do what we did this week, be tough and physical.’’
The Caseys (8-2) had to tough out a 75-mile bus trip to Sussex County and a shaky first quarter before overpowering Pope John (7-3), which gained 255 yards on the ground, topped by Berrell Neal’s 146 yards. Sonny Abramson, Pope John’s quarterback who is a Virginia recruit, was sidelined by an injury and the Lions’ fill-in quarterback Ty Hranicka didn’t complete any of his three throws.
But RBC appeared ready for any challenge. Murphy’s 77 yards were second on the team to Michael Wilen’s 96 yards as the Caseys mixed 213 yards on the ground with quarterback Eddie Hahn’s 6 of 11 passing for 83 yards.
The bleak opening for Red Bank Catholic was impacted by playing into a stiff wind in the first quarter. The Caseys’ offense went three-and-out in its first two possessions. Meanwhile, Pope John threatened. In fact, the Lions did everything but score in their first possession, including using a direct snap to up back Sekayi Rudolph on a fake punt to pick up 19 yards and a first down.
RBC’s defense held at the 12 and the Caseys kept the Lions off the scoreboard when sophomore Matthew Ansell blocked Mateo Zapata’s 30-yard field goal attempt, with senior lineman Charlie Gargiulo recovering.
The Caseys were saved by their defense again when Wilen at linebacker moved fast on a Pope John backfield miscue and recovered a fumble with 4:23 left in the first quarter.
That finally seemed to motivate RBC’s offense and University of Connecticut-bound Hahn and senior Michael Balzofiore connected on a pretty-looking 23-yard pass to the 13. Three plays later, RBC was up 7-0 on Murphy’s three-yard run with 3:19 left in the first quarter.
As it turned out, Murphy was only warming up. Set up by a 69-yard Wilen run, Murphy scored from the one-yard line with 8:42 left in the third quarter, answering Pope John’s strong start to the second half with two plays covering 71 yards, with Hranicka going 56 yards on a run for a tying touchdown.
This Murphy touchdown gave RBC the lead for good at 14-7 and his final TD, on a 34-yard run, made it 21-7 with 3:42 left in the third quarter.
Murphy as a linebacker recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter but Pope John rallied back once more with a one-yard touchdown run by Neal with 4:38 left, but RBC when it got the ball back chewed up the clock to put the game away.
“That’s a good football team we beat and truthfully you’re not going to find a bad team in the playoffs,’’ said RBC coach Jim Portella. “I couldn’t be any more proud of this group. To get on a bus, drive 75 miles and get off and play physical and fast and compete like we did, it was outstanding.’’
Key play: RBC was able to make the final four minutes of game clock disappear with interior resilience to go with sharp ball-handling decisions, such as when Murphy sacrificed a few yards to stay in bounds with two minutes left, keeping the clock moving and keeping the ball away from Pope John’s offense.
Offensive game ball: Murphy because he scored all of RBC’s points except the points-after.
Defensive game ball: Wilen keyed a strong performance by the RBC linebacker corps. He had a fumble recovery but his third quarter quarterback sack kept Pope John’s momentum at the time in check.
Up next: Red Bank Catholic visits St. John Vianney Friday in the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III semifinals. The Lancers defeated Donovan Catholic 41-0 in the quarterfinals.