With St. James trailing 21-6 with less than three minutes left in the game, it looked like the Wildcats had put up a gallant effort against a De La Salle team that had beaten them 63-7 a year earlier.
Then, the Wildcats almost pulled out a miracle finish.
The St. James defense forced a punt from the Wildcats’ 41-yard line with less than three minutes left in the game and SJH figured to get the ball back deep in its own territory.
When the punt snap rolled through the legs of Cavaliers punter Tyler Mitchell, St. James got the ball at the De La Salle 25. Four plays later, Wildcats receiver Tyshone Williams outleaped a De La Salle defender in the right corner of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Shamar Smith. The conversion kick made it 21-13 with 1:17 left in the game.
St. James was successful on an onside kick attempt, getting the ball back at the De La Salle 37 with 1:12 left in the game.
Facing first and goal from the 5-yard line, Smith scrambled to his left and leaped high over a De La Salle defender and just across the pylon to make it 21-19 with 15 seconds left in the game.
A two-point conversion attempt failed when Smith was unable to connect with Logan Gravois in the end zone, enabling the Cavaliers to escape with the two-point victory.
“We tried to run a flood package where we got them on a sprint-out and we got a high-low opportunity but they got some pressure and (Smith) wasn’t able to set his feet and get a good throw to Logan (Gravois),” St. James coach Robert Valdez said.
The result between a pair of Top 10 ranked teams in Class 3A dropped St. James to 5-3 overall and 2-1 in District 10-3A play. De La Salle improved to 5-2 overall and 3-0 in league action.
“This is a tough football team. St. James will make a run for a state championship. I’m just so happy to get out of here with a win. It’s a tough place to play,” said De La Salle coach Ryan Manale.
Meanwhile, it was a heartbreaking loss for the Wildcats.
“This one hurts because we worked so hard to get ourselves in position to beat these people and we came up just a little short but I think we gained a lot from it,” Valdez said.
The game was a stark contrast from the previous three meetings between the teams. Along with last season’s 63-7 defeat, St. James lost to the Cavaliers 41-16 in 2015 and 48-12 in 2016.
“I think our program is starting to improve to the point where we can stand up to the caliber of these teams,” Valdez said. “It’s a testament to the kids, the coaches and philosophy we are trying to build. We are setting the bar now and we can’t go below it.”
“We’re a totally different team. They are a totally different team. It feels good to be 5-2 and playing for a district championship next week,” said Manale.
De La Salle, behind a physically imposing offensive line, ran right at the Wildcats on the opening drive of the game. The Cavaliers capped the 10-play drive on a 16-yard run by Kendall Collins for a quick 7-0 lead with 7:23 still remaining in the first quarter.
St. James’ only score of the first half came in big-play fashion on a 60-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Gravois. A missed extra point attempt left the Wildcats down 7-6 with 6:26 remaining in the second quarter.
The Wildcats appeared to be driving for a potential go-ahead score when a mid-air fumble by Smith while being hit fell into the hands of De La Salle’s Nathan Penn.
Two plays later, Collins run untouched on a keeper from the wildcat formation for a 33-yard touchdown to give De La Salle a 14-6 lead with 1:08 left before halftime.
After De La Salle’s initial drive of the game, the St. James defense adjusted.
“I think they did a great job of bringing one of their outside linebackers inside the box a little more where our receiver couldn’t block him two-on-two,” said Manale.
“We made some adjustments and just challenged our kids to buckle down and just get after it. We dared them to throw the football and that’s not what they want to do. They want to run the ball with that big offensive linemen, tight end, fullback, quarterback – that’s their style of play,” Valdez said.
Meanwhile, St. James suffered from poor field position and the defense continued to bail out the Wildcats.
The first instance came when the St. James defense failed to convert on fourth-and-9 from the Wildcat 46. The SJH defense forced a three-and-out but after a punt, the Wildcat offense was backed up to their own 13.
A punt exchange gave De La Salle the ball at the St. James 44 but the Wildcat defense held once more, setting up Smith’s 60-yard touchdown toss on the ensuing possession.
Like earlier in the game, an opportunistic De La Salle scored quickly after a Wildcats miscue to increase the Cavaliers’ lead to 21-6 in the third quarter.
The Cavaliers were forced to punt but the as the ball rolled, it hit a St. James player and De La Salle got the ball back at the Wildcats’ 41.
This time it took only one play after the mistake for De La Salle to capitalize when Collins, again from the wildcat formation, raced in for the touchdown that made it 21-6 and set the stage for the dramatic finish.