HERSHEY, Pa. — The scene in the game’s waning moments was unfamiliar and borderline bizarre for Central Catholic.
The team that had been defined all season by a stifling and outright dominant defense allowed 35 points, 14 more than it had in any other game. After winning 15 games by an average of 38.3 points, it was staring at a 25-point deficit.
With a little more than four minutes remaining, the writing was on the wall — this team that so often appeared untouchable was about to lose.
St. Joseph's Preparatory 35, Central Catholic 10
Central Catholic takes on St. Josephs Preparatory in the Class AAAA PIAA Championship at Heinz Field. (Video by Andrew Rush; 12/15/13)
After entering the second half with a 10-7 lead, the Vikings (15-1) allowed 28 unanswered points in the final 24 minutes of a 35-10 loss to St. Joseph’s Prep Sunday at Hersheypark Stadium in the PIAA Class AAAA championship.
The loss not only cost Central Catholic a perfect season, but also its third PIAA championship since 2004.
After the game, Vikings coach Terry Totten continually went back to a single theme — momentum. At some point in the second half, his team lost it, and from there, Central Catholic’s fortunes unraveled.
“It was one of those nights where it ebbed and flowed their way,” Totten said. “But credit them — they created the momentum. That’s what happened.”
After turning in a fairly typical defensive performance in the first half — seven points allowed on 120 yards — Central Catholic gave up 197 yards and 28 points in the second half, partially due to uncharacteristic errors and lapses in judgment.
In the game’s early moments, it appeared things would be fine for the Vikings.
Behind a 1-yard touchdown run from quarterback J.J. Cosentino and a 29-yard field goal, Central Catholic held on to a three-point lead going into halftime.
But with one pass, that small cushion vanished and the Vikings found themselves on their heels for the second time. This time, it would be for good.
After Central Catholic was forced into a three-and-out on its opening possession of the second half, St. Joseph’s Prep quarterback Chris Martin lofted a pass to a streaking John Reid, who made the catch and took it the rest of the way for a 59-yard touchdown.
The Vikings were dealt another setback later in the third quarter when Cosentino went down with a left leg injury that kept him out for the rest of game.
The adversity only grew from there as the Hawks (12-3) marched 80 yards for a touchdown that pushed the lead to 21-10 with 11:51 left.
At one point, that drive appeared stalled for St. Joseph’s Prep as a third-down pass fell incomplete. But Niko Thorpe, Central Catholic’s star linebacker, was called for unnecessary roughness after he collided with the intended receiver, giving the Hawks a first down.
In what was a game of swings, that touchdown drive proved to be the decisive one.
“They got the momentum away from us and didn’t let it go,” Totten said. “That’s kind of a simple formula for winning.”
A 35-yard touchdown run from De’Andre Swift with 5:58 left ended any realistic hopes for a Central Catholic comeback.
A team that predicated so much of its success on a stingy defense and a methodical running game that chewed up yards and time was faced with a deficit it couldn’t overcome.
“Once you’re out of rhythm with the running game we have, it was tough to get started again,” Totten said.
Luigi Lista-Brinza, the Vikings’ leading rusher, had a game-high 129 yards on 22 carries in the finale of his high school career.
Martin, whom St. Joseph’s Prep coach Gabe Infante called “the best player in the state of Pennsylvania,” finished with 192 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The PIAA championship is the first for the Hawks.
“We were champions from the day we came here — that’s what I said,” Infante said. “I said just because no one else can see it doesn’t mean we aren’t. From the day I got here, I said we would be champions and that’s what we did.”
Despite the loss, Totten said he will not let the bitter final chapter overshadow what was a memorable group of players.
“There’s a lot of football teams in Pennsylvania, right?” he said. “And we’re the second best. That’s not so bad, is it?
“I’ll remember these guys for a long, long time. It was a great bunch of kids. They’re going to get up tomorrow, the sun’s going to come up and they’re going to go on with their lives like everybody.”
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG. First Published December 15, 2013 8:55 PM