Pope John Overpowers Paramus Catholic in Saturday Afternoon Thriller

Green turf, bodies on the ground, and an open sideline. That is all Pope John Lions senior linebacker Sean Line saw on his jaw-dropping reception that would make its rounds across social media and lead to another Lions win. 

Line, committed to Harvard as a linebacker, has seen plenty of time on the offensive side of the ball this season as Head Coach Dom Gaston has used his athletic capabilities at running back and tight end. Line was primarily a receiver before he got to high school, and got to make this extraordinary play with a plethora of his hometown friends and Pop Warner teammates watching. His one-handed snag on third down that took Pope John 73 yards to the 1 yard line allowed him to run it in himself for the 37-36 lead over the Paramus Catholic Paladins. He had a career day with two sacks, a safety and blocked punt, 14 tackles, 73 receiving yards, 28 rushing yards, and a rushing touchdown. When a young Pope John team needed their leader to step up, he answered the call yet again.

This game may have had Line’s paws all over it, but numerous talents showed off on this Saturday afternoon in Sparta. The Lions and Paladins put together what may be one of the most captivating performances we will see this high school season. In a clash between two programs making major progress in their rebuilds, it came down to the final drives of the game. Competitive throughout, players like sophomore running back Tylik Hill from Pope John and senior quarterback Kievon Harper for the Paladins took over portions of the game. 

Paramus Catholic started the game off with a rushing touchdown from senior Elijah Davidson, who finished the day with 101 yards rushing on just six carries. Pope John answered with a safety, after Line burst through the line for the first of two blocked punts for the Lions. With a 7-2 score, Pope John was able to rack up the scoring after junior quarterback Chris Dietrich found sophomore Joey Rozynski for a touchdown. 

While trading off scores, sophomore running back Tylik Hill was having himself a half for the Lions. Hill’s ability to take hard contact and not go down served him well, as he used his elusiveness to create big gains out of nothing. His quick cuts and speed allowed him to rush for 134 yards.  The Lions went into the locker room with a 16-14 lead.

The second half started fast, with Pope John sophomore athlete Tyler Houser taking the kickoff deep into Paramus Catholic territory. The next play, Hill made defenders miss for over 20 yards before finding the goalline. The Paladins answered immediately taking the kickoff all the way back for a momentum-swinging touchdown.

Changing their fortunes in the second half by snagging two turnovers, Paramus Catholic was putting points on the board. Each of them came from junior defensive back Adrian Laing, who jumped both a slant and a go route to force the picks. The quarterbacks were dueling in the second half, with more attention turning to the passing game than on the ground.

Dietrich continued to put loads of passing yards up as he had 212 yards through the air with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has looked more comfortable in the pocket every weekend, and has the type of zip on the ball needed to play at a high level. His favorite target was junior captain Charlie Mulligan, who had seven receptions for 68 yards. 

Paramus Catholic senior quarterback Kievon Harper had himself a game of his own, rifling two perfectly placed tosses for long touchdowns and totaling 220 yards through the air. His quick feet in the backfield allowed him to extend plays and finish with 74 rushing yards. He spread the love across his receiving targets, with Xavier Williams, Justus Diaz-Rinaldi, Justin Mays, and Zhaire Trinidad all having more than 30 yards. Mays and Trinidad both had receiving touchdowns. 

Harper’s ability to extend plays was how Paramus Catholic could keep the game close, because it felt like the Lions were in the backfield on almost every play. Pope John’s dominant rush is what makes their defense so hard to play against, they had five sacks and eight tackles for a loss. Those numbers would be a lot higher without Harper’s legs and junior offensive tackle Juan Minaya’s stalwart play on the line. Minaya was consistently able to lock down his side of the offensive line, pancaking defenders and keeping the pressure away from Harper. Minaya is 6’6” and 315 pounds as just a junior, he’s received offers from major schools like Penn State, Miami, and Ole Miss. It’s easy to see why he is viewed as a Power 5 player from his performance on Saturday. 

The last three drives of this game were unforgettable. After Laing flew through the air in front of a slant going to another one of Lion’s sophomore studs Wes Johnston, Paramus Catholic drove downfield and Harper took it in himself to give the Paladins their first lead since the first quarter. With their backs against the wall, Pope John needed something desperately down 36-30 with under four minutes to go. This is where Coach Gaston decided to put Line on the field and see what came out of it, with all his top players spread around the offense. It worked on third down, with that beautiful catch-and-run to the opposing 1 yard line and a quick punch in for the 37-36 lead. The Lions defense roared on the next drive, stopping the Paladins inches short of a fourth down conversion. Assuming victory formation, Pope John walked away with a hard-fought victory.

What stuck out about this game was the quality of football played. Outside of some penalty issues, which can be expected of both young teams, there was no sloppy play in this game. Paramus Catholic alumni and former Northern Highlands head coach Greg Russo is doing a phenomenal job in his first year under the helm. He has built this Paladins program back up to be competitive in one offseason. Pope John head coach Dom Gaston returned last season to lead the team after a very successful high school career at Bergen Catholic and a stint as an assistant in the early 2010’s when the Lions were on top of the state. Gaston has expanded the program and the numbers are improving every season. He has a group that plays like family and will never go down without a fight. Look out for both of these teams throughout the season, because they have the underdog mentality needed to make noise and stir the pot. 

photo by: Anthony Ferrara (ig: af.visualsss)