HOLBROOK – The Pope John squad was so familiar with West Bridgewater’s weapons that they had become household names by the start of yesterday’s Div. 8 semifinal matchup.
One player, though, running back Christian Keeling, was able to torch the Tigers as he rushed for 141 yards for the game and a touchdown on the Wildcats’ first series of the contest. But Pope John never took West Bridgewater lightly and dominated the rest of the way as the defense forced six turnovers on the way to a 31-14 rout of the Wildcats (9-2) to move to a perfect 11-0 on the season and a trip to the Super Bowl.
“We wanted to try and control the kid Keeling,” said Pope John coach Paul Sobolewski. “He’s such a tough back and right off the bat he scored quickly on us and geez we thought we were in for a long day.”
Keeling bounced off one of his own lineman and broke a tackle to scamper 38 yards on his score to give the Wildcats an early 7-0 advantage just 1:36 into the game.
Pope John took the lead for good when quarterback Anthony Mejjia connected with Jesus Rivera on a slant pattern for a 20-yard score. Greg Smith bulled his way in on the conversion and the Tigers were up 8-7 in the closing seconds of the first quarter. A safety and a 62-yard kickoff return by Rivera gave Pope John a comfortable advantage at 17-7 with 6:46 remaining in the half.
West Bridgewater was on the brink of closing the gap on the final possession of the half. Keeling pulled down a Matt Lavoie pass on the right sideline for a 29-yard completion and a first down at the Tigers’ 20. But John Smith Howell stepped in front of a Lavoie pass for an interception as time ran out.
“As good as we are on offense our defense has been doing this all year,” Sobolewski said. “They won the game for us today. They came up with some big plays at the right time. They (West Bridgewater) were 9-1 and have a legendary coach (Bill Panos) and have been steamrolling everybody they played. We were very concerned.”
A Greg Smith fumble recovery in the Wildcat end zone stretched the lead to to 24-7 with just over five minutes left in the third, but West Bridgewater put together a 12-play, 73-yard drive, culminating with a 1-yard keep by Lavoie to cut it to 24-14 with 9:59 left.
A Rivera interception with 3:08 to play led to a 31-yard scamper by Smith Howell to seal up the Pope John win with 2:47 left. Roshad John intercepted a Lavoie pass on the next series to stall the Wildcats at their own 35.