St. John’s and Gonzaga have battled on the gridiron since the 1920s and have met more than 90 times — but until Saturday afternoon, they had never faced off for the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference crown.
When the bitter rivals at last clashed for the title, the Cadets thumped the Eagles 30-7 to capture their first football championship since 1989.
“It’s really special,” said St. John’s junior running back Keilan Robinson. “We wanted to do it for our seniors, our alumni and for the school.”
For the Cadets it was a prolonged journey that began 12 months ago when St. John’s players trudged off the field at the University of Maryland’s Capital One Field with their heads down after blowing a 15-point fourth-quarter lead over DeMatha in the WCAC title game.
“Me and my man Caleb [Okechukwu], we walked into that locker room and saw all of our teammates crying,” senior defensive lineman Kameron Goode recalled. “I just never wanted to see that again. I made a promise to my team that we were going to win the championship.”
Goode and the Cadets’ senior class set the stage throughout the season to deliver on that vow. The Cadets defeated their WCAC foes by an average of 24.8 points per game — including a pair of wins over DeMatha, the four-time defending league champions — while going undefeated in league play for the first time since 1976.
“Year after year we have been so close,” Goode said. “We took down all of our enemies, and now St. John’s is going to be on top for a long time.”
The Cadets laid the foundation for their championship run by loading the September schedule with contests against national powerhouses St. John Bosco and De La Salle — both of which were in USA Today’s top-10 rankings when they faced the Cadets and remain in the top 15. Despite losing those games, their close scores gave the team confidence — and St. John’s is now ranked as high as No. 17 nationally.
“After those first games against Bosco and De La Salle, we realized we were one of the best teams in the country,” Robinson said. “In both games we held the lead against two of the top seven teams in the country.”
That experience allowed the Cadets to step on the field Saturday afternoon with poise.
“We walked out saying, ‘We have played tougher teams,’” said senior quarterback Kevin Doyle. “We came out with a lot of confidence. We were so calm.”
That bravado worked against the Cadets in the early going, as 80 yards of penalties slowed them down in the first quarter. The Eagles took advantage, with freshman quarterback Caleb Williams scoring on a one-yard scamper. Cadets kicker Rafael Checa booted a 38-yard field goal, but St. John’s trailed 7-3 late in the first half.
But the Cadets offense found its groove late in the second quarter when senior quarterback Kevin Doyle flung a 16-yard scoring pass to wideout junior Quinten Johnson, seizing a 10-7 lead.
After the break, St. John’s went to running back Antwain Littleton, a hefty bruising freshman who blasted through the Eagles defense for a score and a 17-7 lead.
At the start of the fourth, St. John’s put the game out of reach when Johnson scored from three yards out to grow the lead to 24-7 with 11:15 to play. A pair of Checa field goals salted the game away.
For St. John’s coach Joe Casamento, the key to the game was the culture the squad has built during his two years at the helm.
“We have worked so hard. What my coaches and I have made important are selflessness and care for each other,” he said. “They are so tight that I think we would believe that we could give [the University of] Maryland a fight. When you put all of us together, the sum of the parts is pretty good. We’re a band of brothers, and that’s a hard thing to beat.”