From the heap of bodies, St. John's defensive tackle Cam Goode emerged. He sauntered away from the pile, recovered fumble in hand, and came to a stop a few feet in front of the Cadets' sideline. He lifted the ball with both hands: an offering to his joyous teammates and fans. With enthusiasm, they accepted.
Goode's fourth-quarter fumble recovery was the culmination of a hard-fought, defensive afternoon for the Cadets, who beat DeMatha, 17-14, on Saturday to punch their ticket to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference final.
No. 2 St. John's (8-2) allowed the Stags only brief moments of optimism, with No. 13 DeMatha's two scores coming right before and right after halftime. As the offense struggled to find the usual rhythm that helped the Cadets storm through conference play, their defense forced DeMatha (6-5) to stick with the run and disrupted the backfield when it mattered most.
The defense "helped us out a lot. We were supposed to put up more points than this," wide receiver Rakim Jarrett said.
Late in the fourth quarter, after St. John's failed to capitalize on Goode's fumble recovery, DeMatha marched down the field and was faced with a fourth and one at the St. John's 26-yard line. If the Stags could convert, they might have a chance to win. If they couldn't, St. John's would have a date with Gonzaga in the WCAC championship.
Stags quarterback Eric Najarian handed the ball to freshman running back Sieh Bangura, who was met by a host of tacklers at the line of scrimmage.
"We knew they would be bringing straight power, and you all saw what happened," Goode said. "It was a wrap."
The key offensive drive for St. John's came early in the third quarter. After falling behind 14-10, the Cadets got the ball at their own 23. On second down, quarterback Kevin Doyle connected with running back Ron Cook for a 32-yard gain. Then he found Keilan Robinson for a 10-yard completion. Finally, on a first down from the 24, he lofted a ball into the corner of the end zone for Jarrett. The sophomore rose above his defender and wrestled the ball away to give his team the lead.
"I was just thinking, 'Go up and make a play,' " Jarrett said. "They had a guy on me who was supposed to be pretty good, but I knew I would make a play."
Jarrett was the Cadets' leading receiver, finishing with four catches for 91 yards. When St. John's wasn't taking shots downfield, it fed Robinson the ball, letting him chip away at the Stags' defense early and take time off the clock late. The senior had 22 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown.
The win marks a return to the championship game for St. John's, which lost to DeMatha in the final minutes of last year's title game. If that memory wasn't enough to get the Cadets motivated, the opportunity to face off against their biggest rival, Gonzaga, should do the trick.
"We know the tension is going to be up for everyone," Jarrett said. "We just need to focus on ourselves."