EAST RUTHERFORD – This was the game that Shore Conference football fans have been waiting for all season long and the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the Shore didn’t disappoint.

The game went down to the wire with top-ranked Red Bank Catholic holding off Mater Dei, 14-10, to win the NJSIAA Non-Public Group III championship.

For the Caseys, it’s their second state title in five years and third in program history, while the Seraphs were making their third straight trip to the sectional finals after winning the program’s first-ever state title in 2016.

Red Bank Catholic’s opportunistic, bend-don’t-break defense forced three second-half turnovers and provided a crucial goal-line stand in the final five minutes of the game to make the final score hold up.

“It’s a heck of a feeling but it certainly didn’t come easy,” said Red Bank Catholic head coach Frank Edgerly. “It had everything you could imagine – the goal-line stand there at the end. They gave us opportunities and we didn’t cash in. We gave them opportunities and they didn’t cash in. It was one of those games where you knew the margin of error was going to be very, very slim, but in the end you can’t say enough about our defense tonight. This was an example tonight where our defense picked up our offense and this time of year you don’t win without complementary football.”

The Caseys were clinging to a 14-10 lead when Mater Dei took over at the RBC 19-yard line with 8:45 remaining in the contest.

RBC forced a Mater Dei three-and-out and following a Gavin Toth punt, Caseys senior running back Billy Guidetti fumbled on first down turning the ball back over to the Seraphs at their own 35-yard line.

Mater Dei’s outstanding junior running back Malik Ingram, who finished with 250-yards rushing on 34 attempts with one touchdown, immediately ripped off runs of 31 and 25 yards giving the Seraphs a first-and-goal at the nine-yard line.

Ingram then picked up four yards before being stopped for no gain on second down by senior tackle Tommy Smith.

“We just had to buckle down,” said Smith. “We knew that’s a great offense over there with Malik so we knew we had to play disciplined, hard-nosed defense.”

On third-and-goal from the five, senior linebackers Steve Cmielewski and John Columbia combined to stop Mater Dei’s talented dual-threat quarterback Rob McCoy after a three-yard gain setting up a fourth-and-goal at the two-yard line.

Cmielewski was a tackling machine finishing with a game-high 17 tackles on the night while Smith added 10 and Columbia four tackles.

McCoy kept the ball again on fourth down and rolled right looking of an opening in the line but Cmielewski and sophomore tackle Jake Louro were there to stuff him for a one-yard loss with junior defensive end and Notre Dame-commit Kevin Bauman helping to finish him off. Junior outside linebacker Charlie Gordinier, who finished with nine tackles, including two tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery, came in off the edge and forced McCoy inside and into the hands of Louro and Cmielewski.

“In between each play we just kept saying we love each other and we came together as a family,” Cmielewski said. “We just put our feet on the ground and came down hill on every play. We bend, but we don’t break. Every time we had a big play we just came together as a family because that’s what we are. It was a double B-gap blitz with me and John Columbia. We knew it was going to be a run so we just came through and did what we had to do. It feels great.”

“That’s toughness and character,” said Edgerly of the goal-line stand. “Quite frankly, the one thing that separates us from a lot people is the investment our kids have made in each other as a team and that showed up on that fourth-and-2.”

Red Bank Catholic took over at the three and the Caseys decided to roll the dice on first down.

Senior quarterback and Boston College-commit Steve Lubischer executed a perfect play-action fake rolling right and spotted Bauman all alone down field before lofting a pretty spiral to Bauman who rumbled all the way down to the Seraphs 42-yard line.

“The anticipation is that you’re going to stop the run down there,” said Edgerly of the play to Bauman. “Fortunately no one in the stadium covered Kevin and 50 yards later we reversed the field.” 

However, the Caseys drive stalled when Mater Dei linebacker Russell Ferrisi, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles, dropped Guidetti for consecutive losses and they were force to punt.

Caseys senior Ryan O’Hara, who has been a major weapon on punts and kickoffs all season for the Caseys and who averaged 46 yards on five punts with a long of 51 yards Saturday night, pinned Mater Dei back at their own 14-yard line with another beauty with 2:35 left in the game.

“One thing that goes unnoticed is Ryan O’Hara’s punting tonight,” said Edgerly of his senior punter’s major contributions. “It’s something that cannot be over-looked.”

A McCoy seven-yard keeper and two Ingram runs gave the Seraphs a first down at the 25-yard line when McCoy completed what looked like a 50-yard bomb to Isaiah Alston down to the RBC 25-yard line. However, Alston was called for offensive pass interference for pushing off and the play was brought back.

Now facing a first-and-22 at the 13 with a minute to play, McCoy threw three incompletions. On fourth down with Smith applying pressure, McCoy’s pass intended for Clarence Lewis on a slant over the middle around the 20-yard line was batted away by senior cornerback M.J. Wright essentially ending the game with 30 seconds still showing on the game clock. 

Behind Ingram’s brilliant game, Mater Dei out-gained RBC, 404-256, with 344 of Mater Dei’s yardage coming on the ground. McCoy added 93 yards rushing and 63-yards passing but went 0-for-7 passing with an interception in the second half.

But it was the Caseys big-play defense that came up with huge stops when they had to have them that made the difference. 

Lubischer was 7-of-13 for 187 yards and an interception and rushed for an additional 33 yards on 12 attempts, including an 11-yard touchdown run. Guidetti had two receptions for 56 yards and a three-yard touchdown run and Key added two receptions for 54 yards along with four tackles on defense.

“It feels great, we’ve been working for this ever since we lost last year,” Lubischer said of getting that state title. “I can’t thank Coach Edgerly and all the coaches enough for what they did for us today. We knew our defense was going to come up big on that goal-line stand so we put our trust in them. They were huge for us today.”

Mater Dei opened the game with an 11-play drive but came up empty when Columbia stopped McCoy short of a first down on fourth-and-11 at the 23-yard line.

The two teams then traded punts with the Caseys taking over at their own 15-yard line at the 11:51 mark of the second quarter.

Lubischer hit senior wide receiver and University of Pennsylvania-commit Jayden Key for 42 yards to the Mater Dei 42, but two rushing plays and an incompletion brought up a fourth-and-6 at the 38-yard line.

The Caseys took a gamble and it paid off when Columbia took a direct snap from center and rambled 14 yards for a first down at the 24-yard line. Two plays later on second-and-9 at the 11-yard line, Lubischer scored on a keeper up the middle with O’Hara’s extra point giving the Caseys a 7-0 lead with 7:05 left in the half.

After trading punts once again, Mater Dei went on a 16-play scoring drive that took five minutes off the clock ending in a Toth 27-yard field goal after Cmielewski stopped McCoy on third-and-5 from the eight-yard line for a two-yard loss.

The half ended with the Caseys holding a 7-3 lead and due to receive the second-half kickoff.

Following a touchback, RBC took over at their own 20-yard line. On third-and-8 from the 22, Lubischer lofted a screen pass to Guidetti with heavy pressure in his face. Guidetti hauled it in and scampered all the way to the Mater Die 34-yard line for a 44-yard pickup.

Following a holding call, Lubischer gained 11 yards on first-and-21 then connected with Kevin Degman for eight yards on third down bringing up a fourth-and-2 at the 26-yard line.

Guidetti plowed up the middle for four yards and a first down before Lubischer added runs of 10 and nine yards on a perfectly executed bootleg to the left leaving RBC with a second-and-goal at the three-yard line. Guidetti took care of the rest, finishing off the 80-yard, 10-play drive with a three-yard rushing TD. O’Hara’s extra point made it 14-3 with a little over four minutes gone in the third quarter.

“That was huge for us,” said Lubischer on scoring on the first possession of the second half. “That just takes their pride away. We go down in the second half and score on the first drive and it just rips their heart out. I’m speechless right now, it’s been a great ride.”

The two teams then traded interceptions with senior free safety Anthony Romano picking off McCoy and one play later Lewis stealing a Lubischer pass intended for Key at the 18-yard line.

Mater Dei cashed in on the turnover to pull within 14-10 with Ingram doing most the damage.

Three straight runs by Ingram gave them a first down at the 28. McCoy was then chased out of the pocket by Key and scrambled for 21 yards to the 49-yard line and a first down.

On the next play, Ingram burst up the middle, made one cut and raced 51 yards down the left sideline for the score. Toth’s extra point pulled Mater Dei with four, 14-10, with 5:22 left in the third quarter.

On the Caseys ensuing possession, Shittah Sillah and Robert Young stopped Cmielewski on fourth-and-1 for a two-yard loss at the Caseys own 27. But two plays later, with the Seraphs threatening at the RBC 21, McCoy was stripped by Wright with Gordinier recovering at the eight-yard line.

The Caseys were forced to punt when Sillah stopped Wright after a one-yard gain on third-and-7 from the 11-yard line. Punting out of his own end zone, O’Hara boomed an end-over-end punt to the 48-yard line where Isaiah Noguera signaled a fair catch.

The Seraphs then reached the RBC 33-yard line looking to take their first lead of the game, but on second-and-7 Ingram coughed up the ball giving it back to the Caseys at the 32-yard line with 11:05 left in the game.

Ferrisi dropped Guidetti for a three-yard loss and Lubischer’s pass to Degnan on third-and-12 came up three yards short bringing up a fourth-and-three and the Caseys elected to punt. O’Hara then came through again with a perfectly placed punt down to the 19-yard line with 8:45 remaining, setting up the sequence of events that lead to the Caseys goal-line stand.

Red Bank Catholic (10-0) completed its first undefeated season in 58 years and will finish No. 1 in the Shore for the first time since 2013 and the fifth time in the last 11 seasons.

They were the preseason No. 1 team and went wire-to-wire as the No.1 team. And that was no easy feat as they defeated No. 2 (Mater Dei), No. 3 (Long Branch), No. 4 (Rumson-Fair Haven) and No. 8 (Red Bank Regional) on their road to the championship.

Coming into the game they were ranked fifth in the state and should move up a couple spots when the final rankings are released.

It was a classic bend-don’t-break defensive effort for the Caseys and when all is said and done it’s scoring defense that really matters.

“Talking about defense, we gave up one touchdown in the last eight quarters of the playoffs,” Edgerly said. “This time of the year you got to play defense and down the stretch it was our defense that pulled this thing out for us.”

In his second stint with Red Bank Catholic, Edgerly took over three years ago when this year’s seniors were sophomores.

“It’s satisfying, very satisfying,” said Edgerly. “Honestly, the best teams that you’re around are the teams that hold themselves accountable and this senior class is in a class of their own. This is the greatest team I’ve ever been around, on and off the field. We have great leaders who are great to be around and leadership is the beginning and ending point with this team.”

“It’s surreal, it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said a jubilant Smith afterwards. “I don’t even know what’s going through my mind, it’s crazy, it’s a great feeling.”

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