JOHNSTON — People are going to be talking about this playoff game for a very long time.
St. Raphael Academy won a wild and crazy shootout with Johnston High on Saturday night in their Division II quarterfinal-round game on the Panthers’ campus -- a royal battle that saw both teams nearly combine for 1,000 yards of offense and the Saints score a heart-pounding 56-50 overtime victory.
The Saints trailed by two touchdowns on four occasions during this action-packed thriller and took their only lead on Charles Correa’s 10-yard TD run on the final play of the game and SRA’s only play in overtime.
The Panthers had a chance to draw first blood when they got the ball first in overtime. But after their first three plays netted minus-one yard, quarterback David Bubar tried to heave a pass to Bret Simas in the far right corner of the end zone, but SRA defensive back Newon Sendolo picked it off.
That set the stage for the Saints to claim the game, and when Correa took a handoff to his left and dashed down the middle of the field and into the end zone, sidestepping a couple of would-be tacklers along the way, the Saints, their coaches, and a scattering of fans stormed the field in celebration.
“I’ve coached and played at this school for 25 years and this is the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of,” offered SRA head coach Mike Sassi. “There might have been some games with more magnitude -- some Super Bowls -- and I’m not going to diminish any of that stuff. But just the back-and-forth -- we fell behind 42-28 and we just kept fighting -- I give those kids all the credit in the world.”
The Saints’ reward for their first playoff victory since winning the Division I Super Bowl in ’07 is a marquee matchup in the semifinal round on Tuesday, Nov. 30 against crosstown rival Tolman High at Pariseau Field.
The Tigers, who are 8-0 and the Division II-B’s top seed, stomped the third-seeded Saints in their division opener by a 37-0 score back on Sept. 17. That setback came during a stretch that saw the Saints kick off their season with a 1-3 record, but since then, they have won five straight division games.
“I think we’ll give a better effort than we did last time,” admitted Sassi. “We started the year with a young team, but I think we’ve improved a lot. A lot of people kind of stuck a fork in us just two games into the season. We lost to the best team in the state, Bishop Hendricken, who’s undefeated in Division I, and then we had the bad game against Tolman and people kind of pushed us aside and forgot about us. But now we’ve won five Division II games in a row and I couldn’t be any prouder of this team.”
One player the head coach was proud of was his senior quarterback, Trevor Vasey, who savored one of the finest games of his three-year career. Vasey completed 13 of his 26 passes for 257 yards (the second-highest total of his career) and a career-best five touchdowns.
Vasey also surprised a lot of fans and the Panthers’ defense by sprinting for 81 yards on three wild bootlegs that helped set up touchdowns. Entering the game, he had just 84 career yards on 35 carries.
“You have to keep the ball in his hands and let him make plays,” Sassi noted of Vasey. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best quarterback in the state and I think he showed it tonight.”
Three more Saints enjoyed career nights, including two of Vasey’s receivers, Jean Charles, who reeled in four passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns, and Charles Correa, who also had four receptions for an even 100 and a TD. The receptions and yards for both players were career highs.
The Saints, who amazingly also amassed the same number of yards rushing (257) as they did passing, received two touchdowns a career-best 147 yards on 12 carries from Ricardo Pognon, 133 coming in the second half. Pognon had rushed for 136 yards last week in the Saints’ victory over Ponaganset.
But while St. Raphael was clicking on all cylinders on offense, the team was sputtering on defense and surrendered a whopping 447 yards of offense and 21 first downs to the Panthers. The hosts did the bulk of their damage on the ground (323 yards), but did not have a 100-yard rusher to lead their attack.
“The frustrating thing is that we had people in the right places to make plays and we weren’t tackling,” admitted Sassi. “We did a really poor job tackling in the first half and even in the third quarter and we definitely have to clean that up.”
The Saints’ defensive struggles were evident in the early going, as the hosts roared to a 14-0 lead just six minutes into the game.
At the end of the first quarter, the Panthers held a 21-14 lead, but at the half, the score was tied at 28-28 thanks to a six-yard touchdown pass from Vasey to Charles in the far right corner of the end zone with 2:22 to play.
By halftime, Vasey had 212 yards passing and the Panthers had 221 yards on the ground, but those two assaults were held in check for most of the second half by the respective defenses.
In the third quarter, the Panthers recaptured their two-touchdown command and held the Saints’ offense to just 57 yards, but the Saints stepped up their play in the fourth quarter and quickly knotted the score at 42-42 with a pair of quick touchdowns.
On the first play of the quarter, Vasey connected with Davon Robertson on an eight-yard TD pass, and after the Saints recovered an onside kick, they quickly marched down the ball and scored with exactly nine minutes on the clock on a six-yard run to paydirt by Pognon.
Julian Diaz, who capped both touchdowns with extra points, was 7-for-7 in that department.
With 4:36 left in the game, the Panthers again struck and took a 50-42 lead on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by David Bubar and a two-point conversion run by Greg Doutre.
But the Saints again responded with 2:50 to play and tied the contest on an electrifying 46-yard touchdown run down the Panthers’ sideline by Pognon and a two-point conversion pass from Vasey to Robertson in the middle of the end zone.
The Panthers nearly won the contest on the final play of regulation on a 33-yard desperation pass into the end zone by Bubar to Simas, who managed to get his hands on the ball in a swarm of players, but could not hold on to it.
“This was the craziest game I’ve ever seen or played in,” noted Vasey. “It’s ridiculous. I can’t even describe it right now because I’m still in shock.”
Bubar was 9 of 18 passing for the Panthers for 124 yards, two touchdown passes to Doutre, and two touchdown runs on short quarterback sneaks over the top. Ryan Geraghty also ran for a team-high 95 yards on 17 carries and added a pair of touchdowns.
“This (loss) isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” said Johnston head coach Joseph Acciardo. “Whenever you put 50 (points) up, you think you’re going to come out with a ‘W’. That’s a hard pill to swallow.”