South Jersey Glory Days Football Writer

MEDFORD — Through all the pomp and circumstance here on Friday that comes with a former Turkey Day rivalry played out in the early season, the basic tenet of football remained the same.

Senior night couldn’t change it, dueling student sections didn’t adjust it, nor did frequent penalties and odd bounces.

Quite simply, the game still owns a rule: The toughest and strongest often win. Enter Shawnee High quarterback Joe Papa. His rugged runs taught that lesson in the Renegades’ 27-23 road win over Lenape in the South Jersey Football Frenzy Show Game of the Week.

“He’s the most humble, amazing football player,” tailback and safety Nick Rusinski, Papa’s best friend since fourth grade, said. “There’s no one else I’d rather go out on the field and battle with than No. 3.

“He’s amazing.”

Papa ran for 164 yards on 21 carries and scored twice on the ground. He also threw two touchdowns.

“I always give 100 percent effort, but I knew they were all counting on me,” Papa said of his fourth quarter that included 65 yards rushing, a score, and a 21-yard game-winning connection to Liam Gilmore. “Nobody was giving up. I had to push to the end.”

Longtime Shawnee coach Tim Gushue credited Papa and his Renegades’ (3-0) resolve on Friday in the wild affair.

“We got down and we challenged them at halftime,” Gushue said. “We said, ‘Listen, how are you going to respond?’”

The Tribe (0-3, 0-1 West Jersey Football League American) led 13-7 at half and tacked on a field goal to make it 16-7 early in the third quarter. After a reverse pass sparked the next drive for 31 yards, Papa hit on three completions over the next five snaps — Rusinski’s 39-yard score on a throwback screen the last of them. A two-point conversion trimmed Lenape’s lead to 16-15 with 6:05 left in the stanza.

After a failed squib kick, the Renegades (3-0, 1-0 WJFL American) faced more adversity. It took the Tribe all of two plays to move 52 yards and into the end zone on Jaelin Mims’ pass to Connor Hepperlen from 10 yards out. At 23-16, Shawnee needed a drive.

“We have this thing where we flush it,” Papa said of his team’s mindset. “After the play we can’t do anything about it, so we just let it go and move on to the next play.

“I feel like we’ve matured a lot.”

That fortitude helped set the stage for the finish.

The 6-foot-3 signal caller marched Shawnee 78 yards in 13 plays. The possession ended on the first play of the fourth quarter with Papa’s goal-line plunge to make it 23-21. The conversion try failed. Four plays later, the Renegades’ defense forced a turnover on downs to get the ball back.

“I’m very proud of how these guys hung together and had some resolve because at the end of the day that’s what most sports are about,” Gushue said. “… They kept competing.”

After the turnover on downs, Papa ran for 15. Rusinski for three. Papa for 19. Rusinski no gain. Papa to Gilmore, touchdown.

An unbeaten stretch for Shawnee caused some minor celebration but Papa knew it only provided a clear reminder of a year ago.

The Renegades faced this same group of foes. They beat Northern Burlington, Camden Eastside and Lenape. Then, they were swept in the next four tilts by Cherokee, Winslow, St. Augustine Prep and Millville — some of South Jersey’s best.

“It feels really good but we can’t let it get to our heads,” Papa said. “We lost four in a row last year.”

That next string of games begins on Thursday as Shawnee travels to face the Chiefs (2-1).

“We never get a breather,” Gushue said with a laugh.

There were players in red who likely had that same train of thought a few minutes before. The big No. 3 barreled their way. Joe Papa taught them that lesson of toughness and strength — and proved his resolve.

Mark Trible is a special high school football writer for South Jersey Glory Days. You can follow him on Twitter @MTrible. Also, catch his high school football show (The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show) every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at