Wheeling, WV - The Sacred Heart Pioneers are the NCFA National Champions! The game was played this past Saturday, December 2, at 3 p.m. in Wheeling, W.V., when the second-ranked Pioneers faced off against the first-ranked Fort Lauderdale Eagles for the national title.
Fort Lauderdale came in with the top-scoring offense in the country, as well as an outstanding defense that was giving up less than 10 points per game. The Pioneers had the top defense in the country the entire season, giving up a total of 13 points during the regular season, and posting five straight shutouts. Something would have to give.
The Pioneers struck first early in the first quarter when senior defensive end Brian Moore brought down Fort Lauderdale’s elusive QB Nathaniel Watson in the endzone for a safety. Watson would prove to be a thorn in the side of the Pioneer defense all afternoon with his agility speed. The Pioneers offense found some success late in the first quarter with a 43-yard touchdown pass from QB Chris Criscuolo to junior WR Mark Barranger. Cam Neal connected with the extra point to make the score 9-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Fort Lauderdale exploded late in the first half with two touchdowns in three plays. First, they drove the length of the field and Watson scored from four yards out to cut the deficit to 9-6 when the extra-point attempt failed. After the ensuing kickoff, Criscuolo was pressured and lost the football. It was caught in the air by UFTL defensive lineman Kitlo Meme who returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion failed, and it was 12-9 UFTL. Both teams exchanged a punt before UFTL got the ball back with approximately three minutes remaining. Watson dropped back with seven seconds remaining and threw a prayer towards the end zone where #1 Ellex Davis came down with it in the corner of the end zone. The failed extra-point attempt left the score at 18-9 at halftime.
The second half was a defensive battle, with both teams exchanging punts and turnovers. The biggest turnover came on the first possession for UFTL in the second half. UFTL drove the length of the field but was picked off at the goal line by Captain Chris Criscuolo. SHU drove the length on the field before calling a timeout on fourth and 3 from inside the 20. Cam Neal booted a 29-yard field goal to cut Pioneer’s deficit to 18-12.
SHU found success late in the fourth running the ball with junior RB Jordan James and getting key catches from senior WR Curtis Sutherland, junior Mark Barranger and sophomore Tyler Toussaint, who all who made tiptoe catches on the sideline on third down. A big third and goal from the 9 yard line found Jordan James taking the handoff and rumbling in for a score, putting the Pioneers ahead 19-18 after a Cam Neal extra point.
A couple more punts were exchanged before the Pioneers drove the ball all the way to the UFTL 1 yard line with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. A fumbled snap at the 1 was recovered by UFTL, giving them 99 yards to drive to take the lead. However, the very next snap was mishandled and wound up in the end zone for another safety. This gave the Pioneers a three-point lead now and possession of the ball with less than four minutes to go. The Pioneers ran the clock down to about a minute remaining before punting it back to UFTL. The Pioneers forced a turnover on downs on four straight plays, and the celebration began. A Criscuolo knee, and the first-ever national championship for SHU Club Sports was official. Jordan James was named MVP with his big performance that included 24 carries for 115 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Congratulations, Pioneers!