By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
Statistics look attractive, but oftentimes lose out to heart, soul and desire.
That was the case Nov. 24 when Mater Dei Prep’s football team held a 408-256 advantage in total offense and 18-10 edge in first downs, but Red Bank Catholic took a 14-10 victory in a classic NJSIAA Non-Public Group III championship game held in MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford.
Photo Gallery: RBC vs Mater Dei Prep Championship Game
Highlighted by several key plays on both sides of the ball, the Caseys first state title since 2014 was the ultimate reflection of their character.
“It was front and center tonight, it certainly was,” said coach Frank Edgerly, who returned to coach at his alma mater in 2016 after seven years in the NFL. “Best team I’ve been around.”
If you don’t believe Edgerly, just listen to the players.
“I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to do this with,” said tight end/linebacker Kevin Bauman, a Notre Dame University commit. “We’re such a close group. Our love for each other is what won this game. Our refusal to let each other down. These guys are amazing.”
“We lost a bunch of guys last year,” said defensive lineman Tommy Smith, who was part of the game’s biggest defensive play. “We knew it would be a struggle to find the chemistry, but a lot of us have been playing together for four years, so we knew once we got in the groove of things it was going to be fine, and this is what happened.”
Senior quarterback Steve Lubischer added, “It feels great. We’ve been working for this since last year ever since we lost [to St. John Vianney in the playoffs]. Our coaches have been pushing us through the summer, through the season. I can’t thank Coach Edgerly and the coaching staff enough for what they did for us tonight.”
Thanks was abundant two days after Thanksgiving, as coaches thanked players, players thanked fans and fans thanked them all after a title game that is being hailed as one of the all-timers.
What made the contest so memorable is that the Seraphs (10-2) showed just as much grit and determination as RBC (10-0), making it a tense game until the end.
But the Caseys came up with a few more big plays.
The first came with less than eight minutes left in the second quarter. At that point, Mater Dei was dominating the game but having nothing to show for it. RBC lined up to punt on fourth-and six at the Seraphs 38, but the snap went to up man John Columbia, who ran 14 yards for a first down. Two plays later, Lubischer scored on an 11-yard keeper to make it 7-0.
Behind junior running back Malik Ingram, who finished with 250 yards, Mater Dei kept grinding and finally got on the board on Gavin Toth’s 27-yard field goal just before the half.
RBC took the second-half kickoff and promptly drove 80 yards in 11 plays, capped by Billy Guidetti’s three-yard touchdown run to make it 14-3. The Caseys converted once on third down and once on fourth down to keep the drive going, and Lubischer rushed for 34 yards and threw for 52 during the march.
“We just decided to be patient in the second half; we didn’t want to take any chances,” Lubischer said.
After RBC’s Anthony Romano and Mater Dei’s Clarence Lewis traded interceptions on consecutive plays, the Seraphs struck quickly as Ingram scored on a 51-yard run to pull the Middletown-based school within 14-10.
After Edgerly gambled and lost by going for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 29, the defense came up huge as Guidetti recovered a fumble on the 8-yard line. After going three-and-out, RBC punted and Mater Dei took over at the Caseys 47. Once again, the defense played lifeguard as Gino Tartamella recovered a fumble at the 33.
When RBC lost a fumble at its own 35, Mater Dei took over with 7:30 left, and the drama built when the Seraphs drove to the 2-yard line. But on fourth-and-goal, the defense came up with the play of the year by stuffing quarterback Rob McCoy for a 1-yard loss.
“We had a few hiccups here and there,” Smith said. “Once we got down on the goal line, we knew what we had to do – we had to buckle down, play some hard-nosed defense.”
“We were ready for it all,” Bauman said. “Whatever it took. We were not gonna let this one go. We worked way too hard, way too long for this one, and we did it.”
Asked who was in on the play, Smith said, “Me, Steve Cmielewski, Gino Tartamella. It was a group of us. We just swarmed. We read our keys and whatever happened, happened. And we made the play.”
A play that will forever loom large in RBC football annals.
“That was phenomenal,” Edgerly said. “In order to win a championship, you gotta make plays like that, and we did.”
The stop left RBC in a precarious position at its own 3-yard line. But on first down, Lubischer stunned everyone by finding a wide-open Bauman with a 55-yard completion to give the Caseys outstanding field position.
“That was a great play call,” Lubischer said. “I didn’t even see that coming when he called that.”
Nor did the defense.
“We knew they were gonna load up to keep us down there, so that was one of those plays to get our quarterback out on the edge for a run-pass option,” Edgerly said. “Fortunately for us, no one in the stadium covered [Bauman].”
Although RBC couldn’t capitalize with a score, it held off Mater Dei in the final 2:35 to win the program’s third title and start a delirious celebration amid a steady rainfall.
“I can’t even explain it or put it into words,” Smith said. “This is the greatest feeling I ever felt in my life. That’s a great team, we knew that coming in. We had to do what we had to do, and we got it done.”
Inside an NFL stadium, no less.
“This was the greatest experience of my life,” Smith said of playing at the Meadowlands. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Walking out of the tunnel, it was surreal.”
“It was incredible, such a blessing,” Bauman added. “It was an amazing experience and a shout out to our fans for making such a strong showing. And we got the job done.”