By Jim Hintelmann
RED BANK – The playoff drought is over for the Red Bank Catholic football team, and the unbeaten Caseys did it in impressive fashion.
A 42-6 romp over Pope John XXXIII of Sparta in the opening round of the NJSIAA Group III Non Public A playoffs Friday night ended 13-years of frustration for RBC, which last won in the playoffs in 1998.
Playing state powers Don Bosco Prep, Bergen Catholic and St. Peter’s Prep in opening round games in recent years when it competed in the brutal Non Public Group IV division certainly didn’t help matters, but the Caseys received a big break this season when it was dropped to Group III, and took full advantage.
“It feels great to break that string of losses in the first round,” said running back John DiStefano, who had a brilliant game with 281 yards rushing in 30 carries including four touchdowns. “Maybe we’ll start a new tradition of winning first round games.”
The win puts RBC in the semifinals Saturday when it will travel to Delbarton; another unbeaten power, which routed Monsignor Donovan, 49-7, in its first round game.
“We didn’t talk about that (winning a first round game),” said RBC coach Jim Portella. “These are high school kids and we talked about motivation and playing in front of our fans. That was enough.”
RBC’s defense was solid throughout with three interceptions and a fumble recovery all of which set up touchdowns.
“We wanted to run the football and challenge our offensive line to do what they were capable of doing,” said Portella. “Our defense didn’t want to give up big plays because Pope John has some dangerous skill players on the other side.”
RBC started quickly after Ryan Spahr recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff at the Lions’ 39 and scored in four plays.
DiStefano carried on all four plays and scored on a 10-yard run. Jim Toomey kicked the first of three extra points for a 7-0 lead.
Mike Corcione set up the next RBC touchdown a few minutes later by returning an interception to the Lions’ 26. Two plays later, DiStefano tallied on a 26-yard run, shaking off a number of Pope John tacklers on the way.
“We were really pumped up for this one,” said DiStefano. “Our defense was great.”
Pope John’s only sustained drive came following the kickoff when it moved 58 yards in eight plays with quarterback Dan Cuncio throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to Noah Brown but the extra point was blocked.
RBC scored again just before halftime when Chris Donald smashed up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown run.
The Caseys made it 26-6 on their first series of the third quarter when Donald scored his second touhdown on a 3-yard run. James Taylor had set it up with a 70-yard kickoff return to the Lions’ 9.
“The ball took a couple of bounces and I picked it up,” said Taylor. “I got some great blocks and just went with them. We’ve been working hard for this all week but its not over yet. We want to win the states and this is the first step.”
Taylor was back a minute later when he intercepted a Pope John pass and returned it to the Lions’ 17. DiStefano scored thee plays later on a 3-yard run for a 32-6 lead.
DiStefano scored the last RBC touchdown on a 5-yard run after Chris Whitlock set it up with an interception. Toomey’s 22-yard field goal closed out the scoring.
“We wanted to get on top early,” said linebacker Doug Whitlock. “We got the fumble and Corcione came up with a big interception.”
Pope John’s 5-5 record is misleading because four of the losses came to teams ranked in the Top 20 in a North Jersey publication. As a comparison, one of the setbacks was 45-16 to Delbarton.