HOLMDEL – Jake Croce was getting into the end zone. It didn’t matter how many defenders he had to drag there with him.
There was plenty on the line. An undefeated regular season. Better positioning in the playoffs. A division crown.
All of that rested on Croce’s shoulders, and he delivered.
With some powerful, angry running, Croce punched the ball in from seven yards out in overtime to lead Point Boro to a thrilling 19-13 victory against St. John Vianney on Friday night. The win improved the Panthers’ record to a perfect 8-0 and helped them lock up the Independence Division title.
“I really wanted it that bad,” Croce said. “I wanted to get in the end zone so bad after our defense got a stop. I was like, we have to win this.”
Point Boro scored in two plays during its game-winning opening overtime drive. Croce attacked a massive hole set by the offensive line and gained more yardage as Lancer defenders attempted in vain to take him down. With that run taking the Panthers down to the seven-yard line, Croce took the same approach on the next play and muscled his way into the end zone.
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Croce, who finished the game with 125 rushing yards, was initially filling in for the injured Connor Cilento, but head coach Brian Staub returned him to A back where he could inflict the most damage.
“He runs hard, he runs angry, he runs with low pads, and that’s exactly what we want our running backs to do,” Staub said. “He was a little bit quiet in the first half because he was playing L back for Cilento. Then we had to put him at A back and just grind it out.”
The dominant Point Boro offensive line, led by Temple commit Cole Skinner, opened massive holes for the Panthers runners all game long as they rushed for 315 yards. Croce said he owed the line some food as a reward for their performance, perhaps some Dunkin’ Donuts.
“I love them. They’re like my brothers,” Croce said. “It’s a great time running behind (them).”
The defensive stop
It took a huge defensive play to set up Point Boro’s game-winning drive.
On fourth down, St. John Vianney set up for a 42-yard field goal that would have given the Lancers a three-point lead. Instead, holder Kyle Verriest took the snap, rolled out and looked down field for a pass. The Panthers immediately sniffed the trick play out as Wyatt Dewysockie made the initial tackle and Connor Reynolds and Maddox Samaritano helped clean up on the play.
In his film study, Staub said he noticed St. John Vianney typically kicked the field goal in similar situations, but he had a plan B just in case.
“It was 50-50 at that point,” Staub said. “We did have some safety valves. We knew, especially with Verriest, the holder, he’s a playmaker.”
The biggest test thus far
With Point Boro routinely winning by 40 points or more in every other game this year, this was by far its biggest test of the season.
The Panthers entered halftime down 7-0 after Jack Farah jumped on a fumble in the end zone. They got a break on the first play of the second half when a Jayson Bennett interception gave the Panthers a short field, leading to a game-tying seven-yard rushing touchdown by Tyler Gordon.
Early in the fourth quarter, Matt Oliphant raced for a 49-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 13-7 lead with St. John Vianney blocking the PAT. The Lancers responded with a 15-yard touchdown run by Verriest. Their PAT was no good, sending the game into overtime.
It was foreign territory for the Panthers. They’re used to sitting their starters by the third quarter. This time, the starters remained in until the bitter end.
They came out the other side looking no worse for wear and poised for a deep playoff run.
“We haven’t been tested. A lot of these guys, they didn’t play in the third and fourth quarters of some games,” Staub said. “It was awesome to see them grind it out.”
A touching pregame moment
Though the game ended in defeat for St. John Vianney, the Lancer community notched a big win.
Debra Van Trease, the mother of Lancer senior Aaron Van Trease, who sustained a serious spinal cord injury in a game last month, accepted a check for $31,000 on Senior Night to fund Aaron’s recovery. The money was raised by the Point Boro community.
Debra was escorted on the field by Aaron’ teammates Andrew Chemo and Jack Farah. She was then presented with the check.
The Lancers won their first game after Aaron’s injury and gave the game ball to his uncle and cousin to give to him in the hospital.
It was yet another inspiring moment in Aaron’s journey since his injury. The Lancers, wearing Aaron’s No. 18 on their helmets, continued to play for their injured teammate.
Point Boro 19, St. John Vianney 13
Point Boro (8-0) 0 0 7 6 6 – 19
St. John Vianney (5-3) 0 7 0 6 0 – 13
SJV: Farah fumble recovery (McCormick kick)
PB: Gordon 7 run (Forfar kick)
PB: Oliphant 49 run (Kick blocked)
SJV: Verriest 15 run (Kick no good)
PB: Croce 7 run
PASSING – PB: Oliphant 1-5-0-3. SJV: Foley 6-11-2-90.
RUSHING – PB: Gordon 20-94, Croce 14-125, Oliphant 14-96. SJV: Foley 10-29, Verriest 5-22, Farah 3-52, Minardo 2-19, Galamb 1–2.
RECEIVING – PB: Croce 1-3. SJV: Marcello 3-65, Farah 2-18, Pettus 1-23, Minardo 1-10.
INTERCEPTIONS – PB: Bennett, Orio.
Danny LoGiudice has covered local sports across New Jersey since 2014. Contact him at [email protected] or @danny_logiudice on Twitter.