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St. Joe’s Prep comes back against Coatesville in instant classic, then holds on tight to reach state final

DOWNINGTOWN >> When your defense is allowing seven points per game, an 18-point 3rd quarter deficit is the definition of uncharted territory.

Somehow, someway, St. Joseph’s Prep kept its cool Friday night, ripping off a 43-point second half to outlast District 1 champion Coatesville, 53-49.

For the Hawks, it means their fourth trip in the last five years to the big-school state title game in Hershey. The Hawks will battle the winner of Pine Richard and Manheim Township next Saturday night.

St. Joe’s quarterback Marquez McCray finished with six touchdowns on the evening (four rushing, two passing), leading the Hawks’ comeback in what anyone would have to consider a candidate for “Game of the Year” in southeastern Pa.

“We always feel like we’re one play away,” he said. “Our defense has been bailing us out all year… tonight it was [the offense’s] turn.

The game started to turn, however, on a defensive play — with Coatesville leading 28-17 and threatening again, Dawson DeLuliis picked off the Red Raiders’ Ricky Ortega at the Prep 14-yard line, and returned the ball 72 yards to the Coatesville 14. Two plays later, McCray hit James Cherry for a score to cut the lead to 28-25. The Hawks’ offense would not be stopped again.

“We practice interception returns every week,” said St. Joe’s coach Gabe Infante, as his team celebrated its 27th consecutive victory. “We tell them to get the ball to our sideline, and we can set up the wall of blockers. That’s what Dawson was able to do.”

With Coatesville leading 35-32, the Hawks took advantage of a bad snap on a punt with McCray punching it in from one yard out. It was their first lead since 3-0 early on, but this time they wouldn’t relinquish control.

Two more McCray TD runs got the lead all the way up to 53-35, before a furious Coatesville rally, led by Ortega (six TD passes on the evening), got the Red Raiders within 53-49. After an onside kick recovery, the Hawks faced a 3rd down with a chance to put the game away — and did just that on a tough carry by McCray.

“Its about the closeness of our team,” the quarterback said. “We look at one another in the huddle, and it’s ‘You’re my brother… I’m going to do my job for you.’”

The Hawks have one more job to do in order to make history with an unprecedented four titles in five years. Coach Infante feels his team is well prepared no matter whom they face in Hershey.

“To come out here tonight against an excellent Coatesville team — really, it’s a shame someone had to lose — our experience made the difference,” he said. “We never feel like we had it in our grasp, both teams making big plays — but we made the last play. It’s beneficial to us to face such strong teams, because they expose the issues we have.”

Most teams would love to have the “issues” Prep has — a nationally-ranked squad and multiple state titles under some of their players’ belts — but Infante knows the final test will be the biggest. Friday’s win proved the Hawks can’t hang their hats on any one player or even one unit.

“This time of year, you can throw all those trends out the window… we’re not stuck to one identity as an offensive team, or a defensive team.”

They are, however, 48 minutes from becoming a championship team — again.

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