When St. Joseph's coach Paul Sacco viewed the opposing sideline at Pennsville, it was like looking in a mirror - a few years ago.
Sacco's football program is among the gold standards in South Jersey. This year he became the first South Jersey coach to win 300 games, and his team has won seven consecutive state titles.
So Sacco knows a good program when he sees one, and he definitely viewed one firsthand while traveling to Pennsville.
Capitalizing on two fourth-quarter touchdowns, St. Joseph earned a hard-fought 14-6 win on Friday at Pennsville in a game featuring defending champions.
St. Joseph won the state Non-Public Group 2 crown, and Pennsville, which took a 10-game win streak into the game, is the defending South Jersey Group 1 champion.
Pennsville was severely outgained but not outplayed. The Eagles kept a bend-but-don't break philosophy until St. Joseph took a 7-6 lead on a 31-yard pass from Matt Tucker to freshman Jada Byers during a fourth-and-12 play. Eric Graziano's conversion kick was good despite being partially blocked with 8 minutes, 48 seconds left.
Wildcats junior defensive end Sencere Tapp added an 8-yard interception return with 1:49 remaining. Graziano's 112th career extra point put the finishing touches on the scoring.
It was appropriate that Tapp made a final big defensive play because he spent the night living in the Pennsville backfield with three sacks.
"We knew this would be a defensive battle," Tapp said.
Most of all they knew it would be difficult to leave Pennsville's Lou D'Angelo Stadium with a win.
A few years ago, St. Joseph moved up to the big-school Cape-Atlantic American Division, playing Group 4 and 5 schools and, for the most part, ruling the day.
"They remind me so much of the way we were a few years ago," said Sacco, whose 4-1 team lost a 17-14 overtime decision to Holy Spirit. "They want to play the bigger more established schools, and they have tough kids, are well coached."
Pennsville (3-1) had heard all about being a good small-school team. The Eagles wanted the small school portion wiped away, which is why they were eager to face St. Joseph, which is small only in enrollment.
"We wanted to show we could play with anybody," said Pennsville senior tight end-defensive end Rob Saulin, who played like a guy who has accepted a scholarship from Connecticut.
There were doubters of course, but that was before the game.
"Even kids around town said we would be blown out," Saulin said. "We wanted to prove them wrong."
Pennsville led, 6-0, at halftime on a second-quarter 44-yard touchdown pass from P.J. Halter to Logan Johnston. The Eagles got tough when St. Joseph approached the goal line. Three times in the half Pennsville stopped St. Joseph on fourth and short.
St. Joseph, which received 111 yards rushing from junior Qwashsin Townsel, kept coming at Pennsville and finally did enough in the fourth quarter to earn the win.
Pennsville isn't into moral victories, but the Eagles earned great respect from the winning side.
This is the type of game that can shape the direction of both teams. Right now that direction appears headed toward meaningful football games for both in December.
St. Joseph 0 0 0 14 - 14
Pennsville 0 6 0 0 - 6
P: Logan Johnston 44 pass from P.J. Halter (kick failed)
S: Jada Byers 31 pass from Matt Tucker (Eric Graziano kick)
S; Sencere Tapp 8 interception return (Graziano kick)