St. Pius exploded for 24 unanswered points in the second and third quarters, and then held off a game squad from West Hall for a 44-31 win in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs.
The Golden Lions (6-5) got a bit unfocused late in the fourth quarter, allowing West Hall – which never stopped fighting – to tighten the final score. Still, it was a satisfying win for head coach Paul Standard and his team, which began the season 0-5. But St. Pius ran the table in region play to claim its ninth region title.
“We knew the tough schedule would pay off and this group of 14 seniors kept this team together,” Standard said. “I’m so proud of them and they did a great job of leading. We stayed with our core principals and the kids never not believed in the process, and our staff did a great job.”
The Golden Lions (6-5), the Region 8 champions, looked a bit out of sorts in the first quarter as the Spartans moved the ball at will, largely on the efforts of sophomore quarterback Michael Thompson, and took a 3-0 lead after a 45-yard field goal by Israel Lopez.
But St. Pius took possession midway through the period and put together one of its signature drives, a six-minute march that was capped on the first play of the second quarter by a 3-yard run by fullback Scott Braswell. The Golden Lions went on to score the game’s next 17 points – a 29-yard touchdown pass from Connor Egan to Michael Benefield, a 24-yard run by Jacob Pajer and a 20-yard field goal by Will Possert – to take a commanding 24-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
But West Hall countered with a 12-play, 80-yard drive on its first possession of the second half. Thompson was stripped of the ball on his way to a short touchdown run, but offensive lineman Matthew Sinclair fell on it in the endzone to cut the lead to 24-10.
St. Pius answered on the ensuing possession, driving 78 yards in eight plays, with Benefield scoring his second touchdown of the game, this time on a 7-yard run to push the lead to 30-10 after the point-after kick failed. The Lions put the game away in the game’s next two plays. Safety Zachary Ranson returned an interception 46 yards to the West Hall 8-yard line on the Spartan’s first play from scrimmage. One play later Samuel Schwaner sprinted into the end zone to push the margin to 37-10 early in the fourth quarter.
But West Hall kept playing and outscored St. Pius – which subbed in several players — 21-7 in the final period. Spartan head coach Tony Lotti was proud of his team’s effort.
“I feel like it’s important to give everything you’ve got for 48 minutes, and our kids did that tonight,” Lotti said. “We don’t want our kids to ever have any wudda, cudda, shuddas. Leave it all out there and let the chips fall where they may. The kids never quit and I’m proud of them for that.”
West Hall 3 0 7 21 31
St. Pius 0 21 9 14 44
WH – Israel Lopez 45 fg
SP — Scott Braswell 3 run (Will Possert kick)
SP – Michael Benefield 29 pass from Connor Egan (Possert kick)
SP – Jacob Pajer 24 run (Possert kick)
SP – Possert 20 fg
WH – Matthew Sinclair fumble recovery in end zone (Lopez kick)
SP – Benefield 7 run (kick failed)
SP – Samuel Schwaner 8 run (Possert kick)
WH – Michael Thompson 5 run (Lopez kick)
SP – Schwaner 5 run (Possert kick)
WH – Cooper Adams 65 run (Lopez kick)
WH – Cameron Shirley 44 interception return (Lopez kick)