The archrival Catholic schools are squaring off for the second time this season and will play in the 53rd edition of the ‘Fish Bowl’ Friday night for a spot in the Class AAAA state championship. With so much history involved and so much at stake in this rivalry game, I am going to have to breakdown this matchup in sections to hopefully do it justice.
St. Pius (8-5) at Marist (13-0)
THE RIVALRY: The rivalry began in 1962 and Marist opened it with just one victory in its first 14 attempts at taking down St. Pius. Legendary Georgia high school football coach George Maloof was at the helm of St. Pius in the 1960’s and 70’s and the Golden Lions were the dominant team. The series did not take a turn until 1976 when a 35-7 Marist victory sparked an unimaginable stretch of success. Including the 35-7 victory, the War Eagles won 29 of the next 33 meetings between the schools. As a result, Marist now leads the all-time series 32-17-3.
Saying there is a familiarity between the two programs would be a gross understatement. This will be the 30th time that Marist head coach Alan Chadwick has faced St. Pius and Paul Standard has been the Golden Lions’ head coach in every Fish Bowl since 2001. Defense has prevailed throughout the series and seeing a last second victory or overtime game is much more common than anything resembling a shootout. Only four times in the 52 all-time meetings have both of the teams scored 20 or more points in a game and Marist took all four of them. St. Pius, however, has been able to take back serious momentum in the series in the past decade. Its 28-3 win in 2009 marked the first time since 1975 that St. Pius posted back-to-back wins over Marist. A four-year hiatus paused the rivalry before they met again in 2014 and 2015 and St. Pius added two more wins to extend the streak to four-straight victories against Marist. Marist snapped it with a 13-0 home win last season and then took this year’s meeting with a narrow 17-14 road victory.
THIS YEAR’S MEETNG:
Take a look at Marist’s 17-14 victory over St. Pius on Sept. 8 of this season and it makes this semifinals matchup that much more intriguing (and personal). In that game, Marist was able to exploit St. Pius’ one-dimensional rushing offense holding the home team to just two of nine passes for 23 yards (more on this in Key’s to Victory). The St. Pius defense managed to hold Marist to just 72 yards through the air while limiting its prolific running game to under 200 yards. Regardless, the game came down to the wire as Marist dealt a heart-breaking defeat to the Golden Lions as time expired. The first scoring opportunity for either team did not come until there was nine minutes left in the first half and St. Pius came up empty on it in what would’ve been a 40-yard field goal. Marist quarterback Chase Abshier was intercepted on the next War Eagles possession and St. Pius got on the board this time with a 10-yard Jason Jones touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead. Marist answered right back with a 14-play, 80-yard drive with Abshier plowing his way in for a 1-yard touchdown to even it 7-7. The first half was winding down and St. Pius was forced to punt on its next possession, but that turned out to be a critical miscue. The punt traveled just 11 yards and Marist took over at midfield, giving Abshier and the Marist offense enough time to march into St. Pius territory and find fullback Patrick Miles for an 18-yard touchdown with just 19 seconds left before the break. Now trailing 14-7, St. Pius missed a 37-yard field goal in a scoreless third quarter, but successfully tied the game 14-14 with just five minutes left on a Scott Bradwell 1-yard touchdown run. A critical pass interference call on St. Pius negated an interception and helped Marist march down the field for a game-winning drive that ended with Timmy Bleekrode’s 25-yard field goal at the buzzer.
MARIST’S KEYS TO VICTORY:
Marist is once again going to have to slow down a St. Pius running game that has continued to improve in each of the 10 games since their September meeting. The Golden Lions are averaging nearly 41 points per game in playoffs and have scored 35 points or more in each of the past seven games. St. Pius pounded Woodward Academy with a whopping 428 rushing yards last week and running back Jason Jones turned just eight carries into an explosive 182 yards and two touchdowns. This could be a much-different game since the last time the teams faced and it appears now that St. Pius is prepared to be one dimensional if that’s what the defense is willing to give them. In fact, St. Pius defeated Woodward Academy without even attempting a pass. Marist just needs to be patient and pick its moments wisely to keep St. Pius’ defense honest with the passing game.
ST PIUS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
After starting 0-5, the Golden Lions are winners of their last eight games and now have a chance to spoil their biggest rival’s perfect season to advance to the state championship. This incredible opportunity wouldn’t be possible without the resiliency and grit that has driven St. Pius throughout its season. Like the Golden Lions, however, Marist is also playing its best football of the season and the War Eagles and their defense has only gotten tougher since the teams met in September. In the quarterfinals, Marist defeated a Burke County team that averaged 41.3 points per game 28-6 and held the Bears to their lowest point total since 2014 in the process. Still, St. Pius’ keys to victory may once again just come down to better execution on special teams.