They were familiar with this marathon — the grinding, draining, dizzying endeavor of trying to vanquish one of the top high school football teams in the country — so they knew what to expect.

The No. 4 St. John’s Cadets would need starters and backups, long drives and goal-line stands. They emptied the tank, and they outlasted visiting No. 3 DeMatha, 24-20, in another classic Washington Catholic Athletic Conference showdown Saturday.

In a conference in which double-digit leads are an endangered species, St. John’s (5-4, 3-0) and DeMatha (6-3, 1-2) already had exchanged the lead twice before DeMatha mounted another charge in the last six minutes. But the Cadets’ defense held in the red zone: On fourth and six from the 12-yard line, DeMatha quarterback Cameron Edge’s pass sailed out of the back of the end zone.

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“This could be the game,” a St. John’s coach said in the press box.

But this is the WCAC, so it wasn’t.

After a short punt, DeMatha regained possession with 1:31 left, just 46 yards from a go-ahead touchdown. The Cadets dug in again, and sophomore Xavier Terry jumped a route to intercept a third-down pass at the 3-yard line with 12 seconds left.

“It was going to come down to this — we knew that,” said St. John’s quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava, who threw for 197 yards and a touchdown. “We knew we just had to finish.”

How did the Cadets’ defenders step up?

“They know that we’re down three guys on offense, and they have to play better,” Coach Joe Casamento said.

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In this league, style is not an option, and explanations are unnecessary. St. John’s played without three top cornerbacks.

“I don’t even know who was out there at corner, but they did a great job,” Casamento added. “That’s all I know.”

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That’s all it took.

For four weeks, the WCAC’s top four teams have traded blows. St. John’s escaped Good Counsel on a last-minute touchdown. Good Counsel stunned Gonzaga in a five-overtime slugfest. Gonzaga fended off DeMatha by stopping a late two-point conversion.

Every game but one has been decided a touchdown or less, and after nine weeks St. John’s may be best prepared for that kind of battle. The Cadets loaded their nonconference schedule with four of the top teams in the nation. They lost to all four, but they were preparing for grueling WCAC challenges ahead. They suffocated DeMatha running back MarShawn Lloyd, who finished with 16 carries for 81 yards (including 55 on one play).

After they had weathered the storm Saturday, Maiava gave the referee the ball and shook his hand. Taizse Johnson sprawled out on the turf, and Kenjuan Manuel plopped down next to him. Casamento gathered the team and bowed his head: “Let’s be grateful!”

“That’s what I want this program to be about,” Casamento said, and then he pointed to the field, his voice growing louder. “This was fun!”

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