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St. John XXIII captures first state football title

November 17, 2018

The St. John XXIII football team completed arguably the best season in school history Nov. 10 at Texas Lutheran University.

With their 38-27 victory against San Antonio St. Mary’s Hall, the Lions won the TAPPS Division V state championship. Not only was it the first state crown in program history, it matched the 2013 Division II state finalist season with a record 10 victories.

The Lions finished 10-1, outscoring opponents 228-146, notably holding opponents to an average of 13.3 points per game. They held seven opponents to 14 points or less.

While St. Mary’s Hall hit a few big plays for touchdowns, the defense was effective once more, backing an offense led by junior Nolan Diers’ four touchdowns. The Lions’ special teams helped put the game away, with Weston Glueck recovering a muffed punt to set up the final touchdown.

Using a faster tempo than usual, St. John XXIII controlled the game early, keeping the ball for much of the first quarter and the early part of the second to build a key 14-0 lead. The Lions were actually stopped on a fake field goal on their first drive, but used the field position to set up a short touchdown drive.

“Their numbers were similar to ours, so we decided to come out in hurry-up, actually faster than hurry-up, more like a two-minute offense,” Richardson said. “We hurried to the line and either ran right or left, just tried to get plays off quickly. It caught them off guard.”

A third-down reception by Travis Gay set up Diers’ first touchdown, a five-yard counter play from the wing. A defensive front led by Alex Sickafoose, Jake Baudler and Tommy Loyd stymied the Barons on their first two possessions.

Ben Turner drove the Lions 69 yards in 11 plays on their next drive, including a key catch by Diers on third and 12. The Lions went to the junior again inside the 10 for a 14-0 lead with less than eight minutes left in the half.

It was the culmination of a long road back from injury for Diers, who spent the summer recovering from ankle surgery and missed more of the football season with a shoulder ailment. He filled the wingback spot usually run effectively by Jake Williams, who suffered a knee injury against The Village School, and made the offensive plays the Lions needed.

On its fourth drive, St. John XXIII used a first-down catch by Loyd, a fake punt and a 30-yard reception by Garland McClure to set up another touchdown. Turner scored from a yard away for a 21-7 lead, answering a Barons touchdown.

Freshman Ethan Mills came up with an interception on the next drive, but the Barons were able to cut the lead to 21-14 by halftime. The Lions regained their two-score lead midway through the third quarter, when Loyd’s 30-yard catch set up Diers’ third touchdown for a 28-14 advantage.

Clinging to a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter, the Lions had a late drive unexpectedly kept alive by Glueck’s recovery. They capitalized on the next play, with Turner finding Diers open down the middle for a 35-yard touchdown with less than seven minutes remaining.

An interception by Gay allowed St. John XXIII to run off some time and add a 28-yard field goal by Turner. Though the Barons scored on another long strike, there was not enough time to complete the rally.

Despite the big plays, Richardson was impressed with the defensive effort.

“They gave up 31 yards on 20 carries,” Richardson said. “They got us with a few big pass plays … but the defense was outstanding. It was a hard-hitting game. It was clearly a playoff atmosphere. They got those breaks. It got scary for a while but we were able to close it out.”

The Lions finished undefeated against private schools, winning all seven matchups including games against Bay Area Christian and former district foes Fort Bend Christian and Westbury Christian to start the season. They added wins against Brazos and Evadale, both UIL Class 2A playoff teams.

Their only defeat was 48-0 against Cameron Yoe, which took a 9-1 record and a district championship into the UIL 3A Division I playoffs.

St. John XXIII swept Division V East Zone play to earn a spot in the title game. The Lions held off Beaumont Kelly Catholic 20-12 at home in a driving rain, earned their most convincing win of the season, 41-0 against Tyler All Saints Episcopal, and won a 17-14 thriller at The Village School. McClure’s catch and run set up Turner’s game-winning field goal to edge the Vikings.

The Lions will graduate a small but accomplished senior class of Turner, McClure, Sickafoose, Loyd, Gay, Brennan Sierra, Nicholas Moon and lineman/co-captain Andrew Blick. The group helped navigate the Lions into TAPPS independent (Division V) play, making strides during 2-7 and 3-5 campaigns the last two years.

Richardson credited the graduating class with being the “heart and soul” of a team that displayed remarkable competitiveness.

“The biggest thing about these kids, they never gave up,” Richardson said. “They just wouldn’t quit. We were 5-0 in close games, which is hard to do. It’s hard to teach someone how to win close games. But they just would not give up, and it paid off in a big way.”

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