The Saint Joseph of Montvale football team practiced four days this week without knowing who its opponent would be after a COVID outbreak sidelined St. Frances (Maryland).
Late Thursday evening, the Green Knights found an opponent when Phillipsburg became available after flood damage from Hurricane Ida forced the Stateliners’ original opponent, Piscataway, to cancel.
During a game that was played at the end of an uncertain week for both programs, Saint Joseph sealed a 28-6 victory over Phillipsburg on Friday night at Maloney stadium during a wild momentum swing in the fourth quarter.
“I know (Phillipsburg) is program rich on tradition. I believe they’re the winningest program (in New Jersey) still. Football is like a religion out here and I told our kids it was going to be a hostile environment and we walked into a hostile environment. It was a great experience,” Saint Joseph coach Dan Marangi said.
Senior running back Xavier Moore scored the Stateliners’ first points on a five-yard touchdown run that cut the Green Knights’ lead to 14-6 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter.
On the ensuing possession, Saint Joseph traveled 61 yards on 11 plays before setting up for a 36-yard field goal attempt. Phillipsburg sophomore Cameron Bohal blocked Marco Ruiz’s kick before Stateliner sophomore Kevin Burgess caught the ball in the air and weaved a return down the home sideline to the Green Knights 15.
Two plays later, Moore ran up the middle but lost control of the ball and Saint Joseph senior Jack Smiechowski grabbed it up and took it all the way for an 87-yard touchdown.
“My teammates did a great job ripping the ball out and huddling all over the ball. It was really just a breakaway, all I had to do was scoop and score,” Smiechowski said. “It was a great job on both sides having one day of practice and then coming to fight another great team. I’m just really happy that we got to see the field this weekend.”
The Stateliners turned the ball over again a few plays into their next drive before Saint Joseph sophomore Kenyon Massey put the finishing touches on the Green Knights’ victory with a six-yard touchdown run.
“It’s good to get tests like these. (Phillipsburg) is a heck of a football team,” Marangi said. “They’re really physical, like I told the guys, ‘It’s going to be a real physical slugfest.’ That’s exactly what it was and you need that.”
Phillipsburg coach Frank Duffy echoed Marangi’s statement when summing up the game.
“I’m just so proud of our team. I can’t really put into words how proud I am. Our kids fought their tails off from the beginning to the end,” the sixth-year coach said. “It was a physical football game, we knew it was going to be a physical football game. Just their fight the whole game, the way they stuck together, their enthusiasm, their love for each other, it was really special to see as a coach.”
The Stateliners had the chance to open the scoring on their first possession that lasted 18 plays and the first 10 minutes of the game. After senior quarterback Tristen Canzano hit fullback Rai-Quan Dixon on a 14-yard completion, Phillipsburg faced first-and-goal at the Green Knights 7.
Two short runs were followed by a false start penalty and the Stateliners failed to convert on fourth and goal 15 yards from the goal line. Phillipsburg moved the ball into Saint Joseph territory on three of its next four possessions in the first half but couldn’t produce points until late in the third quarter.
Moore finished with 74 yards on 17 carries for Phillipsburg, while Stephen Gural recorded 13 tackles on defense.
The Stateliners will look to bounce back from their first season-opening loss since 2007 when they travel to Hillsborough on Friday night.
“When we said we’d play anybody, we meant it and we played Phillipsburg football,” Duffy said. “When we play mistake-free football, we’re a darn good football team and we can hang with anybody. I think this will give us a lot of confidence moving forward.”
The Green Knights built a 14-0 lead in the third quarter thanks to two long passes from junior Luke Henrich to senior Jaden Wimberly.
In the second quarter, Wimberly hauled in a 34-yard touchdown reception along the home sideline to open the scoring before making a 43-yard over the shoulder catch in the third quarter that doubled Saint Joseph’s lead to 14-0.
“It’s great to have,” Marangi said of Wimberly’s speed. “He can make plays and make things happen from that position. He’s someone that has to be accounted for. He’s a weapon.”
Wimberly, a Lehigh commit, made four catches for 108 yards while Henrich finished 12 of 16 for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think we improved greatly from last week and hopefully the same thing happens next week,” Smiechowski said. “Hopefully we rise to the challenge. I think we’re a team that builds over time and I hope that that keeps going.”
Desmond Boyle may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.