Staff Writer

EGG HARBOR CITY — The game had that kind of feeling, that at some point junior wide receiver Ty Mercado was going to make a game-changing play for St. Joseph Academy. He’s had a knack for that sort of thing throughout his Wildcats football and baseball careers.

And his teammates needed a big play from him, in the worst way. St. Joseph Academy had squandered a 14-0 halftime lead — even after host Cedar Creek lost starting quarterback Billy Smith to injury late in the second quarter — and were staring down the barrel of overtime in the final minute of play Friday in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week.

St. Joseph took possession after a Pirates punt at the Cedar Creek 45-yard line with 1:24 left to play, and a few plays later the Wildcats had made it to the 31-yard line. From there, senior quarterback James Mantuano hooked up with Mercado down the right sideline, and Mercado broke a tackle and dove into the end zone with just 22 seconds left, giving St. Joseph Academy a dramatic 21-14 win.

So much for trying to just get into field goal range for senior kicker Trevin Del Gozzo.

“I went out to the flat, cut it up and the next thing you know the ball was in my hands. (Mantuano) puts it on my hands every time. He’s always looking for me,” Mercado said. “We have great kicker, but coach (Paul Sacco) is spicy, he likes to go for the long ball. Especially with this team, we have a bunch of great athletes on this team and a great QB, so if we spread the ball around, we’ll be fine.”

“There were a lot of ups and downs in this game. We could have put them away, we had it in the red zone with about three or four opportunities,” Mantuano, a Marlton resident, said. “Last week, me and Ty connected on a game-winning play. We play baseball together, this is my senior year and his junior year, and we’ve had a connection our whole careers. We were waiting the whole time (for a play like that to open up). We were going with short, quick passes here and there. We knew they were going to come up on the short passes eventually and then we’d be able to make a play down the field. That helped us win the game.”

St. Joseph Academy defensive back Julius Townsel brings down Cedar Creek receiver Darius Benjamin during first-half action. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

After a scoreless first quarter, Cedar Creek (2-4, 2-2 West Jersey Football League Independence) seemed to grab the momentum as the pirates drove sixty yards to the St. Joseph 22-yard line. Smith hooked up with full back Justin Castillo and Castillo broke several tackles, but the ball was jarred loose just before he dove into the end zone, resulting in a touchback. Two possessions later, after a fumble recovery by Devon Theophile, the Wildcats turned the tide when Mantuano hooked up with wideout Nasir Mahmoud for a 26-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead.

Another Cedar Creek fumble led to another St. Joseph touchdown later in the second quarter, as coach Sacco pulled a trick play out of his bag. Mahmoud took the ball on an end-around, then lofted a touchdown pass to Zach Cruet in the right corner of the end zone. The Wildcats carried that 14-0 lead into halftime after mounting a goal-line stand to end the second quarter.

All hope was not lost for Cedar Creek in the second half, however, despite Smith not being able to return. Senior receiver Zaire Pilgrim took over at quarterback, and on the Pirates’ first possession of the third quarter he hooked up with Alim Parks on a 78-yard catch-and-run down the left sideline to cut the deficit to 14-7.

“We knocked out their QB in the second quarter but then they brought in Pilgrim and we thought he was just going to run the ball, but I’ll give it to him, he’s shifty and ended up scrambling and take a few long shots. Their wideouts are really good, they are going to be very good in the coming years,” Mercado said.

Cedar Creek running back Mekhi Harvey, center, celebrates his touchdown run with teammates Alim Parks (2) and Jamal McClellan (9). (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

The Pirates tied the game at 14 late in the third quarter when Mekhi Harvey broke free up the middle for a 42-yard touchdown run, and with a little more than four minutes left in the game Cedar Creek looked to be in business when Chris McAfee picked off a Mantuano pass at the Pirates’ 36-yard line. But neither team could get anything going offensively, until St. Joseph’s final drive with less than two minutes remaining.

“Credit to Cedar Creek, their kids played hard all the way to the final whistle,” Mantuano said. “But also credit to my teammates. We really hung in there. I threw an interception (with 4:30 to go) and that’s on me. But we just hung in there as a team and got it done, and that’s all that matters.”

St. Joseph Academy (3-1, 1-0 WJFL Independence) has now won three straight games and is 3-1 despite a roster of just 32 players, including 10 of whom are freshman. That’s made things difficult, but coach Paul Sacco is never one for making excuses, and neither are his players.

“Last week we played Willingboro and they were really physical. All they wanted to do was run the ball, but we were prepared for that. Our defense is always prepared. I like the way our coaches set up this defense. We get it done. We had a few kids transfer out, but to us, it’s just whoever wants to step up. We have some freshmen out there playing — shout out to Jordan (Palmer), he’s stepped up. It’s a want thing. Our team wants it, and it doesn’t matter who’s out there, if you have 11 guys out there who really want to play, you can see the result,” Mercado said. “We saw this coming because of the athletes we have. We know if we stick together as a team we’ll be fine. I’m pretty proud of our team today.”

Added Mantuano, about having such a small roster: “It’s tough. Everybody has to be dedicated to the team, and everybody is fighting through pain. This was a very physical game, but we just have to do what we can to come out with a victory. It was just a hard fought game all the way through and it was just going to be who had the ball last, that’s what it came down to. We’re blessed we got the opportunity to make a big play.”

WHAT’S NEXT: St. Joseph Academy travels to Ocean City on Friday, October 7 at 6 p.m. Cedar Creek travels to Delsea Regional on Friday, October 7 at 7 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan:; on Twitter @GDsullysays