UPPER PROVIDENCE >> Ricky Bearden wasn’t about to be denied.
Neither, for that matter, was the Pope John Paul II defense — or the entire team, as such — Saturday afternoon.
The Golden Panthers dominated Sun Valley, 34-0, with a combination of steady offense and hard-hitting, opportunistic defense. They secured a 2-0 season start that was a first for the program in its short history.
And Bearden factored prominently in that outcome, scoring two touchdowns off passes and a third off an interception. The third one, in fact, was unique in it being a “do-over” from a similar attempt three plays earlier.
On a third-and-nine at the Panther 40, Bearden stepped in front of a pass from SV quarterback Anthony Ellis and stormed 60 yards to an apparent pick-six. But a pass interference call negated the play, instead giving the Vanguards a first down at the PJP 25.
After two plays resulted in Sun Valley losing six yards, Ellis again shot for a completion along the Pope sideline. Bearden made the interception and ran it back to the end zone … with no flags, no controversy, no dashed euphoria.
“I just brushed it off my shoulders,” he said. “I read the quarterback and how they were running the routes. I just switched it up the second time, read it and got the gain.”
That completed PJP’s scoring at the 5:37 mark in the third quarter. From there, the Golden Panther defense completed its own quest of recording a shutout, stopping SV on downs on its subsequent possession and weathering the Vanguards’ final drive — one that was halted by the run-out clock at the home team’s 15.
“That’s one of our goals,” PJP head coach Rory Graver said of posting a shutout. “And we even had younger kids inserted at the end.”
Individual highlights for the Panther defense were Jacob Bildstein’s recovery of an SV fumble at the visitors’ 23 — one that set the stage for PJP quarterback Matt DeLaurentis to get the eventual game-winning score on a sweep around his right end — and Dan Cirino’s second-quarter interception in his end zone. Gunner George also distinguished himself by sacking Ellis on successive plays at the end of the Vanguards’ next-to-last possession.
Team-wise, PJP set a telling tone by stopping its guests on downs at its own nine, 13 plays and 67 yards from the opening kickoff.
“That was important,” Bearden said. “We needed to come together as a team.”
DeLaurentis followed his opening TD run by hooking up with Bearden on scoring passes of 19 and 42 yards, while Bildstein added a 29-yard run through his right tackle with 4:09 left in the first half. That all trampled predictions the game would be a closely-contested one between teams that both opened the season with wins.
“Starting with me,” first-year Sun Valley head coach Greg “Bubba” Bernhardt said. “We didn’t come out ready to play.”
The Vanguards’ inability to score on deep drives into PJP’s end of the field plagued them from start to finish. They were 6-for-10 in possessions crossing midfield.
“We had that opening drive, then dropped two touchdown balls,” Bernhardt noted. “In the second and third quarters, we drove, then turned the ball over. It snowballed from there.”
On the day, DeLaurentis had 8-for-16 efficiency in the Pope passing game, good for 105 yards. Along with the connections to Bearden, he hit C.J. McCafferty twice for 23 yards and hooked up with Cirino three times for 16 yards. He also headed the Panthers’ ground game with 53 yards on five carries.
On the SV side, Ellis went 11-for-25 for 104 yards. His favorite target was Julz Kelly, who caught six passes covering 77 yards.
The Vanguards’ running game, by comparison, netted only 63 yards between four players. While Charlie Wendling had a team-high 43 on 15 carries, Ellis was dropped for a minus-13 yards, four of them for losses of 20 yards.
“We were keeping up the intensity,” Bearden said. “We gang-tackled him (Wendling).”
The footnote of its history-making start is not obscuring PJP’s mindset on next week’s game with Chichester.
“We need to keep focused on improving,” he said. “We need to tackle and block better.”
“We’re happy to be 2-and-0,” Bearden said, “but we want to keep it going.”
NOTES >> Coletta saw his own interception of Ellis in the second quarter called back by pass interference. … DeLaurentis executed a “quick kick” on PJP’s last possession, pinning Sun Valley back at its 12-yard line. … Kelly’s first-quarter interception was the biggest individual highlight for the Sun Valley defense.