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St. Joseph and Shawnee captured football championships on Sunday Josh Friedman/Staff Photographer

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GLASSBORO – Qwahsin Townsel was making his way to midfield for the ceremonial postgame handshake when he turned around and noticed Jada Byers struggling to get past the 20.

St. Joseph High School’s dynamic backfield duo battled personal loss and medical hardship to take the field for Sunday’s Non-Public 2 final against Mater Dei.

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When all was said and done, and the Wildcats had captured their 26th state championship with a 30-14 triumph at Rowan University, emotions took over.

Byers, who rushed for 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns, lost his grandmother Gimmie Lee Simmons just two days earlier. After Townsel wrapped his arms around him, Byers fell to the turf in tears.

“This game was for my grandma,” Byers said. “Grandma died two days ago, put her in my heart, put her on the field with me, she was right there for me, she was my angel over top watching me.”

Townsel, who closed his career at St. Joseph with a dominant effort – 33 carries, 234 yards and two scores – not only played with a cast on his left hand, but battled hamstring issues throughout the afternoon as well.

“It’s my last 48 minutes of high school football so I just wanted to finish strong for my brothers,” Townsel said. “I told ‘em I’m not leaving. I’m going to finish this game with them.”

That’s what champions do.

As assistant coach Bill Roberts shouted to his players amid the celebration, “We’re back!”

Star backs shine

Townsel and Byers made their presence felt immediately on Sunday, as Townsel took St. Joseph’s first carry of the game and raced 56 yards down to the Mater Dei 8. Byers finished the drive four plays later with a 1-yard touchdown run and a 8-0 lead.

“Everybody say we the best 1-2 punch in South Jersey, we got to show 'em why,” Byers said.

Townsel had a questionable fumble on the Wildcats’ next drive – coaches and teammates insisted he was down – but he kept his head up and scored on a 3-yard run with 9:36 left in the second quarter to push the advantage to 14-0.

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Mater Dei made it 14-6 when George Pearson connected with Gunnison Bloodgood on a 44-yard scoring strike with 27 seconds remaining in the half, but Townsel’s 19-yard run late in the third gave his team a comfortable 20-6 advantage.

Townsel reached for his hamstring on multiple occasions that drive, including after the score, but he stayed on the field both offensively and defensively.

“I looked at it like I’m a senior,” Townsel said. “I’m one of the oldest on the field, so I’m going to impose my will.”

Byers backed his teammate’s play by intercepting Pearson on the final play of the third as Mater Dei was driving.

“That’s the turning point,” Byers said.

He iced the game with a 7-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive.

Townsel and Byers combined to run the ball on all but four of St. Joseph’s plays (minus kneeldowns).

“They put everything aside,” coach Paul Sacco said. “They knew that they had to play and they gave it everything they got. Jada has been sad the last week with the loss of his (grandmother), he was very emotional, Q was hampered with a couple injuries, playing with a club on and all that. They’re warriors, that’s all I can say.”

Revenge tour complete

St. Joseph won seven straight state championships before Mater Dei snapped their streak in last year’s semifinals, 26-0.

“Losing to Mater Dei hurt us a lot, but next week we was back in the weight room, getting back to the work just for moments like this,” junior lineman Wisdom Quarshie said. “Exactly for moments like this.”

Doubters emerged, but the Wildcats silenced their critics by avenging each of their four losses from 2016 (Holy Spirit, Cedar Creek and St. Augustine as well) to finish with the school’s first-ever 12-0 season.

More importantly, St. Joseph reclaimed its perch in Non-Public 2, and its trophy.

“I just thank God,” Quarshie said. “I can’t believe it. It’s my first time winning a state championship, it feels great. It makes me want to get back in the weight room and start for another one tomorrow. I can’t wait.”

Josh Friedman; @JFriedman57; (856) 486-2431; jfriedman2@gannettnj.com

St. Joseph 30, Mater Dei 14

Mater Dei (8-2)        0   6   0   8   -   14

St. Joseph (12-0)    8   6   8   8   -   30

Scoring

SJ: Jada Byers 1 run (Qwahsin Townsel run)

SJ: Townsel 3 run (run failed)

MD: Gunnison Bloodgood 44 pass from George Pearson (kick failed)

SJ: Townsel 19 run (Byers run)

SJ: Byers 7 run (Byers run)

MD: Kyle Devaney 11 pass from Pearson (Malik Ingram run)

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