On a hot and humid Friday night in the middle of September, Qwahsin Townsel sat in the visiting locker room after his teammates returned to the field for the second half.
The St. Joseph senior fullback wanted to collect his thoughts before the third quarter against his team’s arch-rival, Holy Spirit.
“I fumbled against them last year, and we lost the game,” Townsel said. “I was thinking about that game ever since.”
Townsel didn’t fumble on Sept. 15 at Holy Spirit. He ran for four touchdowns in a 42-26 victory.
In his final season for the little private school in Hammonton, Townsel came to embody St. Joseph in style of play and focus of mission. He was tough, talented, physical and, most of all, determined to make amends for last season and return the Wildcats to their perennial perch at the top of South Jersey football.
“I wasn’t going to walk away from my last year without that,” Townsel said after leading the way in St. Joseph’s final victory of a perfect season in Sunday’s Non-Public 2 state championship game at Rowan University.
From that steamy night in Absecon in September to that cloudy, chilly afternoon in Glassboro in December, Townsel was the wrecking ball that St. Joseph used to pound away — at opponents, at doubters, at any remnants of a disappointing 2016 season.
Townsel, a 6-foot, 200-pound athlete from Pleasantville, is The Inquirer’s South Jersey Offensive Player of the Year.
“He worked so hard in the offseason,” St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco said. “He was so determined.”
St. Joseph plays its best football when the Wildcats work the body, like a burly boxer who keeps digging left hooks into his foe’s ribcage.
That was Townsel. During the first 12-0 season in program history, St. Joseph featured an imposing offensive line, a dynamic sophomore running back in Jada Byers, and a smothering defense led by senior end Sencere Tapp.
But the Wildcats were the Wildcats again because they had a back such as Townsel who kept powering into the middle of the line, loosening up defenses for Byers and junior Nate Johnson to skirt the edges.
And Townsel was more than just the “smash” to Byers’ “dash.” Townsel also showed the vision and speed to get outside, and the moves to avoid tacklers in space and pick up extra yardage through the heart of defenses.
“He really wanted to work on his speed in the off-season,” Sacco said. “He wanted to prove that he wasn’t just a quality fullback, but that he was a quality running back.”
Townsel, who has scholarship offers from Villanova, Fordham and Sacred Heart, led South Jersey with 210 points on 31 touchdowns and 12 two-point conversions. He carried the football 233 times for 1,608 yards (6.9-yard average).
“It was more than I imagined,” Townsel said of his senior season. “All my goals, I smashed them. All our goals, we smashed them.”
Townsel played with a toughness that reflected St. Joseph’s old-school approach to the sport. He fractured and dislocated his left thumb Nov. 4 against Ocean City, but played the final three games of the season with the finger in a cast.
“No excuses — I just had to play,” Townsel said. “It was mind over matter.”
Townsel was at his best in big games. He ran for 122 yards and four scores against Holy Spirit. He ran for 107 and 122 yards, respectively, against Cedar Creek and St. Augustine, two of the better defenses on St. Joseph’s schedule and two of the other teams that beat the Wildcats in 2016.
And he finished with a flourish, rushing for 565 yards and eight touchdowns in three playoff victories, all with a broken thumb.
In Sunday’s 30-14 win over Mater Dei — the defending state champion that knocked St. Joseph out of the tournament in the semifinals last season — Townsel carried the football 30 times for 234 yards and two touchdowns.
Townsel took several hard hits. Sacco said he “couldn’t remember two linebackers who hit harder” than Mater Dei’s duo.
But with the state championship at stake, Townsel set season highs for carries and yards and powered the Wildcats back to the top of the Non-Public 2 mountain.
“We wanted to quiet all the doubters,” Townsel said. “After last year, everybody was saying that the school was going to close down, (that) St. Joe was never going back to the state championship.
“We just came out with the chip on our shoulder and prove everybody wrong.”