Red Bank Catholic senior running back Sabino Portella jumps into the arms of Lorenzo Portella, his brother and offensive lineman, after a successful play. Photo courtesy of Portella’s Twitter page
Red Bank Catholic senior running back Sabino Portella jumps into the arms of Lorenzo Portella, his brother and offensive lineman, after a successful play. Photo courtesy of Portella’s Twitter page

The history itself is, if not intimidating – at least pretty impressive since St. Joseph Academy, Hammonton, has won 27 state sectional titles, including five in six years from 2013-18.

With an 8-2 record, the third-seeded St. Joe’s Wildcats are the next obstacle between second-seeded Red Bank Catholic and its quest for a NJSIAA Non-Public Group B championship.

“They’ve got a lot of history behind them,” RBC coach Mike Lange said. “The coach [Paul Sacco] is a great coach. They’re a good team. We’re gonna have our work cut out for us.

“They’re not a huge squad, but they have some athletic kids,” he continued. “They’re just a talented squad that, year in and year out, are a power in South Jersey.”  

Running back/linebacker Sabino Portella agrees with his coach that this could be a war.

“They are definitely a very talented team,” Portella said. “They don’t have as many [players] as we do … But the kids they do have are very athletic. They can run.”

The teams meet Nov. 19 in the playoff semifinals at Count Basie Field in Red Bank. And while St. Joe’s may have a rich tradition on its side, the Caseys have the “Spirit of Michelle” behind them.

Michelle Brown is the mother of RBC quarterback Alex Brown, who produced eight touchdowns in a first-round win over Morris Catholic Nov. 12, one day after Michelle’s passing from breast cancer. And while Alex deservedly received national recognition for his exploits, the entire team is trying to win a championship in her honor.

“I think [that motivation] is something they’re all comfortable running with,” coach Mike Lange said. “They all cared about her. If it’s gonna motivate our team, I’m all for it.”

Brown will again be the focal point, partly because of his [personal] circumstance but mainly because he is having another outstanding season playing the sport’s most important position.

Brown has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,591 yards and 21 touchdowns during his first year with RBC. He has also run for 423 yards and seven scores. The Bucknell-bound senior’s main targets have been Emmanuel Ross (23 catches for 406 yards and six touchdowns), Najih Rahman (30 catches, 483 yards, three TDs) and Emmanuel Ross (13 catches, 239 yards, five TDs).  

Sabino Portella leads the ground attack, having rushed for 750 yards and nine touchdowns, while Rajahn Cooper has gone for 443 yards and four TDs and Torin Harmon has amassed 481 yards and three TDs.

RBC, which has a 9-1 record, averages 35.8 points per game but is going against a defense that allows just 11.5 per contest.

“They’re a 3-4 defense; they like to pressure and play man,” Lange said. “It presents a challenge just because sometimes they outnumber you a little bit. They’re well coached; I think it’s gonna be a four-quarter battle.”

Offensively, the Wildcats are led by quarterback Ja’son Prevard, who has thrown for 1,469 yards and 17 touchdowns and run for 186 yards and three TDs. His go-to receivers are the explosive Jahmeer Cartagena (23 catches, 812 yards, 11 TDs) and Cohl Mercado (24 catches, 520 yards, six TDs).

Mercado is also one of St. Joe’s main rushing threats with 620 yards and eight scores, while Kevin Mayfield has rushed for 726 yards and 12 TDs.

“We have to limit their big plays more than anything else,” Lange said. “They have a couple good receivers. The quarterback likes to throw the deep ball. … They get the ball down the field in big chunks.”

One advantage the Caseys may have is their depth, which Lange hopes can wear down the Wildcats.

“That would be part of it: hoping our ability to play multiple kids pays off,” he said. “But like I told the kids, you only need to play with 11 at a time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but obviously that would be part of our success this week; being able to play a lot of kids.”

Red Bank Catholic is in search of its fourth state title, and first since defeating Mater Dei in a memorable 2018 game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.  The Caseys’ lone loss this year came to Donovan Catholic, Toms River, in their regular-season finale Oct. 29.

“Sometimes you don’t have it together,” Lange said. “It kind of brought us down to earth a little bit. We had a hard two weeks of practice after that. Because we had a bye, we had to sit on that loss for two weeks. I think our kids came dialed in ready to play last week. We know how precious this really is.”

Portella feels last week’s 58-34 win over Morris Catholic High School, Denville, was a good confidence booster.

“That was one of the better teams we’ve seen with one of the best quarterbacks we’ve seen,” he said. “We rose to the occasion and dropped nearly 60 points on them. That was definitely a big win, it just points us in the right direction. Our coach always says we don’t want to peak too early. It looks like we’re keeping on growing and growing.”

One of RBC’s great strengths has been the closeness of the players. Lange credits that to the program’s atmosphere, and also gives props to the Brown family. Because Michelle’s husband, Ray, wanted Alex to spend valuable time with his mom, they invited the players over as often as possible.

“I’m really happy at how our team blends together and I attribute it a lot to that type of scenario,” Lange said. “The kids were always welcome over there. I think that’s how we built ourselves to where we are. I think this whole situation has brought us even closer in some aspects.”

The winner of the Nov. 19 match will meet the winner of Morristown’s Delbarton High School vs. Holy Spirit High School, Absecon, for the Non-Public B championship.