It wasn’t easy for St. Pius X head coach Paul Standard to knife his way through the crowd of parents, fans, students and alumni to address them after the Golden Lions beat North Hall 31-6 Friday to reach the class AAA state championship game.
Then again, it hasn’t been easy for SPX to get back to the state finale.
Standard’s message: “The man upstairs is proud.”
You could take that a couple different ways.
Standard first led everyone in the Lord’s Prayer, and then said that he knew the late George B. Maloof – the first head coach decades ago at the DeKalb County Catholic high school, and Standard’s mentor – would’ve loved what happened Friday in the stadium named after him.
Maloof led the Golden Lions to their first two title game appearances, and their only championship in 1968, and his best teams did it with defense. So, too, did the present-day Lions on Friday night.
Senior fullback Ryan Braswell rushed for 131 yards and two touchdowns, but the Lions punched their ticket to the Georgia Dome with a defense that held North Hall’s wishbone offense well below its usual production.
Maloof’s ‘68 team won the state with a 6-0 shutout of Gainesville, the fifth time that season the Golden Lions blanked an opponent.
Friday, SPX held in check a team that had scored 38 or more points in nine of its previous 10 games by stuffing North Hall on four out of five fourth-down tries and all nine third downs. The Trojans (11-3) were averaging 344 rushing yards with their wishbone offense, but SPX (12-2) limited them to 192 yards on 53 carries.
“The story of the night was our offense being able to make some big plays, but our defense . . . that team was averaging 42 points a game, and our defense played light out,” Standard said later. “They played with reckless abandon, sacrificed their bodies. They sold out.”
The Lions scored first, and they had their defense to thank.
On the SPX 45-yard-line, the Trojans went for it on fourth-and-14 on their first possession, and SPX defensive tackle Kyle Johnson sacked North Hall quarterback Bradley Brown.
On the next play, senior quarterback Jack Spear optioned right and raced 53 yards for a 7-0 lead. The Trojans, who were as big up front as any SPX opponent all season, didn’t give Braswell any running room early.
“They have very smart coaches so we knew they were probably going to defend us pretty well. We wanted to open it up,” said Spear, who finished with 72 rushing yards on 13 carries in addition to completing 3-of-6 passes for 68 yards and a score. “I pulled it [out of Braswell's gut], and the safety came down pretty hard and overran me.”
The Lions soon stopped the Trojans again on fourth down, but Spear was quickly intercepted by North Hall’s Destin Bennett on a tipped pass.
North Hall turned that into a 30-yard scoring play on the next snap as Bradley Brown found Lee Shelton over the middle on the ext play to pull North Hall within 7-6 with 9:42 left in the first quarter.
The Trojans never came close to the red zone after that. Braswell soon found the end zone on a 38-yard run not long after SPX safety Matt Pearson intercepted a Brown pass. Later, SPX linebacker Daniel Crochet had an interception which the Lions converted into three points as well.
After SPX stuffed Andrew Smith on fourth-and-2 from the North Hall 39, Spear hit tight end J.P. Graves for a 38-yard touchdown pass at the front, right pylon with 1:02 left in the third quarter for a 28-6 lead. Graves caught one pass in SPX’s first 13 games, also for a touchdown.
St. Pius, whose first state final appearance came in 1965 when the Lions lost 6-0 to West Rome, didn’t dominate the Trojans. SPX had a modest edge of 279-266 in total yardage. North Hall’s T.J. Tate rushed 22 times for 115 yards.
But the Lions made the most plays at critical junctures.
“This is amazing,” Spear said. “I’ve never had a feeling like this.”
Standard will be one of three members of the St. Pius X graduating class of 1980 in a state final next week as a head coach, as former teammates Ed Dudley of Ware County and Keith Norcross are going as well.
“We thanked God first,” Standard said, “and then coach Maloof.”
North Hall – 0 6 0 0 – 6
St. Pius X – 7 7 14 3 – 31
SPX – Jack Spear 53 run (Thomas O’Leary kick)
NH – Lee Shelton 30 pass from Bradley Brown (kick failed)
SPX – Ryan Braswell 38 run (O’Leary kick)
SPX – Braswell 4 run (O’Leary kick)
SPX – J.P. Graves 34 pass from Spear (O’Leary kick)
SPX – O’Leary 22 FG