PJP picks off Penncrest 4 times, claims opener
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.”
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.