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WALL TOWNSHIP – An unofficial Shore Conference championship, an undefeated season and a legacy that will never be forgotten. All of that was on the line in Friday’s Shore Conference Championship Pod final.

It came down to two feet. 

Sophomore defensive lineman Keisun Sanders, junior linebacker Charlie Sasso and senior defensive back Casey Larkin combined on one of the biggest tackles in program history when Wall stopped Donovan Catholic on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line with just over one minute left in the game to complete a legendary goal-line stand and give the Crimson Knights an epic 18-15 victory in the Shore Conference Championship Pod final.

Trailing by three with 5:19 left in the game, Donovan moved to Wall's 20-yard line on a clutch 23-yard catch by Trevor Pruitt on fourth-and-eight. Jahdir Loftland then ran for 10 yards to give the Griffins a first-and-goal from the 10. Three straight runs by Loftland brought up fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line and Donovan elected to put junior Levi Wilkins and his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame in at quarterback. He faked a jet sweep to Jayon Farrar before sprinting to a hole that had opened up the middle, but Sanders came in to drive Wilkins back as Sasso and Larkin swarmed in and stopped Wilkins inside the 1-yard line.

“I saw the center try to down-block and I just got out of it, saw (Wilkins) coming and I knew I just had to make the tackle,” Sanders said. “It all just happened so fast. I just had to do it for the team.”

“We knew before the play we were going to have to make that kind of hit, that big, drive-back hit, and that’s exactly what we did,” Sasso said. “I actually scraped the wrong way and got stuffed at the line but Keisun made a great hit and I scraped back over the top and spun out of a block and came up and finished him before he got over the goal line. It was just a great effort by all 11 of us.”

Fittingly, the Game of the Year in the Shore Conference between two undefeated heavyweights ranked No. 1 and No. 2 came down to three points and two feet. And for Wall, it was apropos that its defense brought it home.

“At the end, I’m standing on the sideline and it’s 18-15, they’re driving down, it’s third and then fourth down and goal and I looked at one of my assistants and said, ‘this is where we want to be’,” said Wall head coach Tony Grandinetti. “We hang our hat on defense and running the ball. Let’s hang our hat right now. Let’s have our defense win it for us. I don’t know if anyone could write it any better.”

“I don’t know if we could have made it any more dramatic than that,” Sasso said. “That shows the character of our team. They came back and scored two (touchdowns) but we held them with a goal-line stand at the end of the game.”

Click here for a photo gallery by Ray Richardson

“It’s insane,” said junior linebacker Colin Riley. “We pride ourselves on being the No. 1 “D” and in a moment like that…it can’t get any better. We stopped them at the 1. I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.”

“We knew we just had to stop them with everything we had,” said senior safety Logan Peters. It was stop them or lose, and we knew that.”

“I can’t even put it into words, it came down to two feet,” Larkin said. “It was heart. Coach says get comfortable being uncomfortable and that’s one of the most uncomfortable situations you can be in.”

Senior running back Casey Larkin ran for a game-high 131 yards and touchdowns of 25 and 16 yards on 24 carries and senior quarterback Logan Peters ran for 55 yards and the go-ahead 4-yard touchdown run with 5:22 left in the game. He also had a clutch 31-yard completion to junior wide receiver Matt Dollive to convert a third-and-eight on the go-ahead scoring drive. Sasso had another huge game on defense that included 17 tackles and a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff of the second half, which led to Wall's second touchdown.

Donovan Catholic's offense moved the ball on Wall like no team had this year, posting 242 yards of offense. Loftland ran for 123 yards and touchdowns of 4 and 39 yards on 22 carries and also threw a 2-point conversion pass to Farrar. Senior quarterback Evyn Menta completed 11 of 13 passes for 106 yards and Farrar caught seven passes for 38 yards. On defense, Pruitt had an interception on the opening series of the game.

For a program that was 0-10 in 2016, Donovan Catholic’s ascent to the doorstep of being the best team in the Shore Conference is remarkable. But coming so close and coming up short will not be easy for the Griffins to digest, especially for a fantastic senior class that transformed Ocean County’s only Catholic high school into a powerhouse.

“Who the heck would have thought Donovan Catholic would be playing in a Shore Conference championship-type game?”, said Griffins head coach Dan Curcione. “They believed. They believed in me and they believed in the program. They fought tooth and nail all the way to the end and I’m incredibly proud of them. We were one play short.”

Donovan Catholic won the coin toss and deferred its choice to the second half, giving Wall’s offense the first crack. The Crimson Knights moved to their own 48-yard line but on third-and-four, Pruitt stepped in front of Peters’ pass intended for junior tight end Blake Rezk and intercepted it to give Donovan the ball at the Wall 42-yard line. A false start penalty on the first play pushed the Griffins back and Wall’s defense was able to force a three-and-out. Wall then started from its own 14-yard line, but after gaining one first down had the drive stall thanks to a false start penalty and a sack by junior defensive tackle Nico Ippolito.

In forcing Wall to punt from its own 17-yard line, Donovan had great field position for its second series, setting up at the Crimson Knights’ 39-yard line with 1:51 to go in the first quarter. But Wall’s defense put the clamps on, spearheaded by a tackle for loss by junior linebacker Lou Pilla that dropped Farrar for a 10-yard loss on a screen pass.

The first scoring drive of the game began at Wall’s 21-yard line and the Crimson Knights put the ball in the hands of their star running back running behind their great offensive line. Wall ran the ball nine straight times on a 79-yard scoring drive, gaining five first downs and taking a 6-0 lead when Larkin broke free for a 25-yard touchdown run with 6:24 left in the first half. The extra point was unsuccessful, which would surprisingly become a theme for Wall.

The Crimson Knights took that 6-0 lead into halftime thanks to a defense that did its usual work over the first 24 minutes. At the break, Donovan Catholic had just 25 yards of offense (37 rushing, negative-12 passing) and only one first down.

Donovan was set to receive the second-half kickoff, but disaster struck for the Griffins when the return man fumbled a bouncing ball and Sasso recovered at the 25-yard line. Four plays later, Wall was in the end zone as Larkin found room on a 16-yard touchdown run. The extra point failed again, however. This time the kick wasn’t even attempted after the hold wasn’t clean.

Facing a Wall team that had allowed just 23 points all season entering Friday night, Donovan Catholic was now in one heck of a predicament. The response on the next drive showcased the Griffins’ greatness.

Starting from their own 30-yard line, Donovan did what no team had done to Wall all season by driving 70 yards in eight plays to get into the end zone and make it a one-score game. A 14-yard run by Loftland that he nearly broke for a long touchdown moved the ball to midfield and two plays later Farrar made a great over-the-shoulder catch for a 34-yard gain down to Wall’s 15-yard line. On third-and-five from the 10-yard line. Farrar caught a short pass and extended for the first down with a great second effort. On first-and-goal, Loftland scored on a 4-yard touchdown and Gavin Nguyen added the extra point to cut Wall’s lead to 12-7 with 5:06 left in the third quarter.

A pair of holding penalties and a false start penalty nuked Wall’s next drive and forced the Knights to punt from their own 41-yard line. The kick pinned Donovan at its own 13-yard line but the Griffins had some fresh wrinkles to throw at Wall to find the end zone once again.

Donovan drove 87 yards in eight plays to take a 13-12 lead on a 39-yard touchdown run by Loftland with 9:34 left in the game. Farrar made a spectacular one-handed catch early in the drive, Jalin Butler and Wilkins had chain-moving catches on third down and Donovan’s offensive line was opening up the biggest holes it had all game. Since an extra point would give the Griffins just a two-point lead and do nothing to shield them against a possible Wall field goal, Donovan went for two and offensive coordinator Chip LaBarca Jr. turned to his trick play page. Loftland took the handoff and moved to his right, but pulled up and threw a pass to a wide-open Farrar to give Donovan a 15-12 lead.

There were still over nine minutes on the clock, but Wall knew this next drive couldn’t end without points.

“Poise. I just told them to play with poise,” Grandinetti said. “One of the first drives in the third quarter we kind of beat ourselves with penalties. That’s uncharacteristic of us. So I settled the guys down and really pulled Logan aside. He was a little fired up in the third quarter about some things and I told him it trickles down. ‘Your emotions are going to trickle down to our guys and I need you to be calm and poised right now.’ A guy like Logan, he’s been in big spots and big games, and he led us out there.”

Starting from its own 40-yard line, Wall went 60 yards in eight plays to take the lead on what would end up being the game-winning drive. The major, must-have play came with Wall facing a third-and-eight from its own 42-yard line. Peters dropped back to attempt a pass for the first time since the opening drive of the game and he was able to connect with Dollive for 31 yards down to the Donovan Catholic 27-yard line. Peters’ first read was Larkin and he was so close to throwing the ball to him that he was still looking in that direction when he threw the pass to Dollive.

“I knew the situation that if we don’t get this it’s pretty much it,” Peters said. “I wanted to go to Casey and I was about to throw it to him and then I saw Matty so that’s why it looked a little awkward,” Peters said. “I thought I overthrew it at first so I had a moment of ‘oh no way I just did that’, but it ended up perfect.”

“We knew the coverage we were going to get and we really liked that play. We talked about it at halftime that if we get into a spot like that to run it, sending Dollive across the middle,” Grandinetti said. “It comes down to execution. I can be the last guy on the whiteboard and it’s always going to work, but it comes down to the kids and in championship games like that it’s the players who make the plays.”

Through the air and on the ground, Peters would not be denied on the final offensive drive of his career. On third-and-four from the 21-yard line, Peters rumbled for 17 yards on a quarterback keeper down to the 4-yard line. Wall almost scored a wild touchdown on first down when the snap went over Larkin’s head in the Wildcat formation but he recovered it and flipped a pass to Peters in the end zone, who was unable to make the catch. But on the next play, Peters muscled his way into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown and an 18-15 lead after the extra point was not good once again.

“I knew I had to get in there,” Peters said. “I had just dropped a touchdown pass that was right in my hands so in that moment I knew I was getting in. I did everything I possibly could.”

Now, it was up to Wall’s defense, up to a unit that has received praise comparing it to some of the Shore Conference’s all-time great defenses. Would Donovan Catholic drive for the winning score to usher in a new era in the Shore Conference or would Wall cement its legacy and enter itself into the annals of Shore Conference lore?

Donovan began from its own 24-yard line with 5:19 left in the game and quickly moved into Wall territory after a 16-yard catch by senior tight end Ethan Capone and a pass interference penalty. A short run by Loftland followed by a run for no gain by Loftland and an incomplete pass brought up fourth-and-eight from the 43-yard line. Menta then made a great throw and Pruitt came down with a great catch for a 23-yard gain down to the Wall 20-yard line. Loftland followed with a 10-yard run to make it first-and-goal from the 10 with 2:03 on the clock. The Griffins were in business.

Loftland ran for four yards on first down, one yard on second down and three yards on third down. There was only one more play left to run: fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 1:12 left in the game and Shore Conference football supremacy on the line. Wilkins initially had daylight – even several of Wall’s players thought he was going to get into the end zone –but then Sanders, Sasso and Larkin made a play that will live forever. Somehow, Wall stopped Donovan Catholic two feet from the end zone.

“We all knew what time it was, we all knew we had to do our job and the outcome would be what we wanted,” Sanders said. “It came down to us trusting each other.”

“That’s what you play for, you play for a drive like that,” Sasso said. “You play high school football to be on the field during that situation.”

It was an epic game befitting of the hype that surrounded it, really from the time the teams met in a preseason scrimmage. Donovan Catholic showed it is a program that will be a force for a long time, certainly as long as Curcione and his staff remain at the Toms River school and continue to coach and build and strive for greatness. In an era of non-public dominance in many sports, especially football, Wall showed the value of having a group of home-grown players who have played together for the majority of their lives and what that can mean in the biggest of moments.

“The culture won today and I think it took over at the end,” Grandinetti said.

The legacy of this Wall group is now firmly intact. The Crimson Knights finish the season 7-0 to become the program's first undefeated team since 1983. Their defense allowed just 38 points all season, an average of 5.4 points per game, while recording four shutouts. They went 19-1 over the last two years and have won 20 straight games against Shore Conference teams. They brought home an NJSIAA state sectional title and now a Shore Conference title, even if it is unofficial. In a season surrounded by uncertainty and apprehension, Wall found a way to write the storybook ending. They were legendary.

“When we came out at halftime the last thing I said to the team was ‘leave your legacy’,” Grandinetti said. “I talked to the seniors yesterday about leaving their legacy. This is the first Wall team to finish undefeated since 1983. That’s 37 years, so it’s a pretty big deal. They’re going to talk about this game forever.”

“This is perfect,” Peters said. “This is the exact way I wanted to go out.”

 

Box Score

No. 1 Wall 18, No. 2 Donovan Catholic 15

 

 Donovan CatholicWall
First downs1011
Rushes-yards26-13638-184
Passing11-13-01-4-1
Passing yards10631
Fumbles-lost2-11-0
Penalties-yards6-505-60

 

 1234F
Donovan Catholic (7-1)007815
Wall (7-0)066618

 

Scoring Summary

W – Casey Larkin 25-yard run (kick failed)

W – Casey Larkin 16-yard run (run failed)

DC – Jahdir Loftland 4-yard run (Gavin Nguyen kick)

DC – Jahdir Loftland 39-yard run (Jahdir Loftland pass to Jayon Farrar)

W – Logan Peters 4-yard run (kick failed)

 

Individual Statistics

RUSHING – DC: Jahdir Loftland 22-123, Jayon Farrar 2-8, Evyn Menta 1-4, Levi Wilkins 1-1; W: Casey Larkin 24-131, Logan Peters 11-55, Charlie Sasso 1-3, Matt Dollive 1-1, Team 1-(-6).

PASSING – DC: Evyn Menta 11-13-0 106; W: Logan Peters 1-3-1 31, Casey Larkin 0-1-0 0.

RECEIVING – DC: Jayon Farrar 7-38, Trevor Pruitt 1-23, Ethan Capone 1-16, Jalin Butler 1-15, Levi Wilkins 1-14; W: Matt Dollive 1-31.

INTERCEPTIONS – DC: Trevor Pruitt 1-0.

 

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.