PJP picks off Pen­ncrest 4 times, claims opener

The Phoenix - - SPORTS - By Jeff Stover Dig­i­tal First Me­dia

UP­PER PROV­I­DENCE » Win­ning streaks have to start some­where.

Satur­day af­ter­noon, Pope John Paul II set the foun­da­tion for what it hopes will be a pro­duc­tive 2017 sea­son, tak­ing ad­van­tage of a rusty Pen­ncrest team along the way.

The Golden Pan­thers stuck a 43-7 loss on the Li­ons. It was their first sea­son-open­ing win since 2011.

They did it in very solid fash­ion, too. A pin­point-ac­cu­rate pass­ing game meshed with a pass de­fense that picked off Pen­ncrest quar­ter­back Chris Mills four times, two of them be­ing re­turned for touch­downs. That helped fuel a run of 43 unan­swered points af­ter Pen­ncrest drove the open­ing kick­off down for a touch­down.

But PJP head coach Rory Graver sees it as an area on which to fo­cus head­ing into next week­end’s game with Sun Val­ley.

“The big­gest thing is to not be sat­is­fied,” PJP coach Rory Graver said. “Sun Val­ley has a good team. We have to have a great week of prac­tice, and we have to keep go­ing.”

Get­ting the roll go­ing fell to Matt DeLau­ren­tis, and PJP’s se­nior quar­ter­back didn’t dis­ap­point. DeLau­ren­tis an­swered Pen­ncrest’s open­ing drive by fin­ish­ing off the team’s sec­ond pos­ses­sion with a 13-yard sprint around his left end at the 9:01 mark of the sec­ond quar­ter — that af­ter com­plet­ing a 32-yard pass to Dan Cirino along the way.

DeLau­ren­tis would add another TD run of 14 yards be­fore the end of the first half. He also high­lighted his pass­ing day by hook­ing up with sopho­more Justin Mi­tala on a 33-yard toss that upped the Pan­thers’ lead to 30-7 10 min­utes into the third quar­ter.

“Fromthe jump, we came out slow,” DeLau­ren­tis said, “but then we started ex­e­cut­ing well.”

The PJP de­fense ad­min­is­tered its first back-breaker at the 7:20 mark in the sec­ond quar­ter, when A.J. Natale swiped a Mills pass at the Pen­ncrest 18 and ran it in for a pick six. That 12-7 lead bal­looned to 18-7 by the half with DeLau­ren­tis’ sec­ond rush­ing TD.

The cap­per came with 7:32 left in the game, Cirino swip­ing Mills’ fi­nal pass at­tempt and go­ing 41 yards for the Pan­thers’ fi­nal score. In-be­tween, Rick Bear­den and Mi­tala had other in­ter­cep­tions — Mi­tala’s set­ting up a fifth touch­down when Natale bulled his way up themid­dle four yards in­side the two-minute mark of the third quar­ter.

“I’ve been here since the be- gin­ning,” Graver said of the four-in­ter­cep­tion game, “and I’ve never seen it hap­pen.”

“When we picked off the passes and ran them back for touch­downs,” DeLau­ren­tis said, “that caused a real mo­men­tum switch.”

Pen­ncrest mus­tered only 11 yards through the air, get­ting 160 on the ground.

Caleb Ma­ha­lik got all 71 of his game-high stripes in the first half, 56 of them on the vis­i­tors’ lone scor­ing drive at the 6:36 mark. Mills had more suc­cess run­ning the ball, adding another 46 on 11 totes.

PJP’s pass­ing game, in turn, had six dif­fer­ent play­ers emerge as con­trib­u­tors at the re­ceiv­ing end. Cirino cov­ered 72 yards on five catches, Mi­tala had another 40 on two tosses, Bild­stein had a 20-yard re­cep­tion and Bear­den an 18-yarder.

C.J. McCaf­ferty (2-8) and Gun­ner Ge­orge (1-4) also got into the act.

“They had holes in their de­fense,” DeLau­ren­tis noted, “and there were cer­tain cov­er­ages we were able to ex­ploit.”

The Pan­thers’ run­ning game saw Bild­stein ride a sec­ond­half surge to a team-high 58 yards on 13 car­ries. DeLau­ren­tis had another 51 on 10 tries, and Natale 17 on five.

DeLau­ren­tis’ TD run ended up be­ing his long­est of the day.

“When I got into the back- field,” here called, “I re­al­ized their cor­ner­back and safety had their backs turned. That was big.”

It all gave Graver a hard de­ci­sion on which as­pect of PJP’s play was big­gest.

“Both,” he said. “The turnovers were huge. Our de­fense was great to­day, other than the first se­ries. Our of­fen­sive line stuck with it ... it strug­gled in the first half but then was in great shape.”

There­was no such de­bate on the Golden Pan­thers’ readi­ness for its sea­son opener.

“I knew we were ready,” Graver said. “The guys worked hard in the off­sea­son. They’re hun­gry.”

SAM STE­WART — DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Pope John Paul II’s Rick Bear­den (9) bats a pass in­tended for Pen­ncrest’s Jaen Bren­nan dur­ing the first half of Satur­day’s game. PJP won 437, the Golden Pan­thers claim­ing their first sea­son-open­ing win since 2011.

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