Top 10 battle: St. Pius X faces Marist

Top 10 battle: St. Pius X faces Marist

St. Pius running back Jason Jones (9) breaks free against the Marist defense in the second half of Friday's game. (Drew Dinwiddie/Special)

St. Pius’ seniors had taken some tough losses to their bitter rival Marist over the past two seasons.

They were shut out (13-0) at Marist in 2016. Then last season they fell twice to the War Eagles – a 17-14 nail-biter at home in the regular season, and then a 35-14 beat down at Marist in last season’s Class AAAA semi finals.

But Friday night at Marist, the Golden Eagle seniors exacted a bit of revenge and made a little history in the process.

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For the first time since 1969, St. Pius (4-1) walked into Hughes-Spaulding Stadium and shut out Marist, 17-0, before a raucous student section that made the trip from the Johnson Road campus. The victory was made even sweeter by the fact that Marist (3-1) came into the contest undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Class AAAA, while St. Pius was ranked No. 5.

“I’m so proud of these kids,” said St. Pius head coach Paul Standard, in his sweat drenched St. Pius oxford shirt. “I think our offensive line took over in the second half, but this was a total team victory.”

St. Pius led 3-0 at halftime, as both team’s defenses stood tall in the first half. But the Golden Eagle offense got untracked quickly in the third quarter.

The senior-laden offensive line – Steven Hudson, Connor Brown, Trent Gavron, Ryan Carney and junior Joseph Miller –led they went on a seven-play, 80-yard drive, opening holes and sealing creases for quarterback senior Connor Egan, senior fullback DJ Mitchell and senior halfbacks Jason Jones and Michael Benefield. The shortest run on the march was Benefield’s 2-yard dive for a touchdown to increase the St. Pius lead to 10-0. None of the other runs was shorter than 5 yards, including a 15-yarder and a 34-yarder by Jones.

Marist moved the ball well on its first possession as well, but a holding penalty near midfield stunted the War Eagles’ momentum and they were forced to punt.

The Marist defense got a stop on St. Pius’ next possession, but an illegal cut block on the first play of the drive pinned the War Eagles inside their 10-yard line. As the fourth quarter began, on third-and-13 from the Marist 13-yard line, quarterback Connor Cigelski’s pass was tipped over the middle and picked off by senior safety Zach Ranson.

An illegal blindside block on the return pushed the ball back to the Marist 45-yard line. But the Golden Eagle offensive line took control once again as St. Pius eight running plays to cover the distance to the end zone. This time, Mitchell did the honors from 11-yards out, blasting through a gaping hole up the middle to increase the lead to 17-0. The dive was made successful due to a fake jet sweep to Jones.

Marist tried to go to the air immediately on its next possession, and had some success as Cigelski hit Kyle Hamilton down the far sideline for a 37-yard gain. But two plays later, Jones made a diving interception of Cigelski’s pass into the flat.

Jones’ pick showed the supreme athleticism this St. Pius team has. Standard believes it is one of his more explosive groups.

“The only other team [this explosive] was that group in 2011-2012 with guys like Geno Smith (Cal-Berkeley), TJ Holloman (South Carolina) and Nick Ruffin (Auburn),” Standard said of a squad that went 24-4 in two years and won two region titles. “But this group here has got what it takes. I’m just so proud of them tonight.”