For three quarters Friday night, St. Pius X dominated Westminster before things got dicey and the Golden Lions held on for a 27-13 win in which special teams were critical.
St. Pius (1-0) eased to a 24-0 halftime lead, and went up 27-0 in the third quarter on Thomas O’Leary’s second field goal. Then, Westminster sophomore utility man Rankin Woley scored two touchdowns in the final period to pull the visitors close.
Good thing the Golden Lions have O’Leary, a special teams plan and senior wingback/cornerback Jack Pelt.
St. Pius scored first when junior linebacker/fullback Forrest Whitlark blocked Westminster’s first punt, and then scooped it up to score on a 32-yard play. Add field goals of 22 and 47 yards by O’Leary, factor in a missed PAT after the Wildcats’ final score, and you have the margin – 14 points.
“Every [O'Leary] kickoff but one was in the end zone, we punted the ball well, we didn’t let them get any returns,” said St. Pius X coach Paul Standard, whose team fell in last year’s Class AAA state championship game to Buford. “And I think the blocked punt turned the momentum of the game.”
Westminster (0-2) stoned the Golden Lions to open the game with a three-and-out, and St. Pius followed the same way. Then, Whitlark got loose on the Wildcats’ right side. He was not alone; the Golden Lions flooded that side for the punt block.
“We hadn’t really worked on a lot of punt blocks so we put a couple in this week,” said Whitlark, who started at outside linebacker and spelled starting fullback Dalton Wilson. “The one we ran, a lot of guys got on the left side and I just got lucky.
“My lineman picked up the other two guys. I backed up and then went through, and Brian O’Reilly and I got our hands on it. Then, it was just mindless and I ended up in the end zone.”
The Golden lions would go on to out-gain Westminster 325 yards to 253, but the numbers were lopsided until the final quarter.
Westminster, which fell 18-0 a week earlier in its opener against Blessed Trinity, nearly evened the score moments later. Senior quarterback Jake Forte’s play action fooled the Golden Lions and wide receiver Jackson Egan was all alone some 50 yards downfield.
The ball fell through his hands, however, and the Wildcats soon punted.
Junior quarterback Joey Connor’s 66-yard run set up a second score for St. Pius. Wilson rumbled up the middle for a 9-yard score and O’Leary’s PAT made it 14-0. In his first start, Connor led the Golden Lions with 86 rushing yards, and he completed 3-of-4 passes for 43 yards.
“Defensively, we had a couple busts that they didn’t take advantage of . . . but we made some key stops,” Standard said.
Pelt scored on a 22-yard sweep around right end to stake St. Pius to a 21-0 lead with 8:43 left in the second quarter, and this started to look like a blowout after Pelt was soon the man again.
The speedy college baseball prospect (second baseman) thwarted Westminster’s best scoring chance in the first half when he stepped in front of Wildcat wide receiver Chris Ottley in the end zone and returned it to the 9-yard-line with 5:47 left in the second quarter.
From there, St. Pius drove 86 yards to set up O’Leary’s 22-yarder with 1:03 left in the half.
Woley made things interesting.
On the first series after St. Pius subbed out all but a couple defensive starters, the quarterback/running back/linebacker/defensive back blew off left tackle and went 71 of his game-high 118 rushing yards for a score early in the fourth quarter. He added a 1-yard run late in the game, just a few plays after Whitlark lost a fumble.
Each team had just one turnover.
Westminster – 0 0 0 13 – 13
St. Pius X – 14 10 0 3 – 27
SPX – Forrest Whitlark, 32 return of blocked punt (Thomas O’Leary kick)
SPX – Dalton Wilson, 9 run (O’Leary kick)
SPX – Jack Pelt, 22 run (O’Leary kick)
SPX – O’Leary 22 FG
SPX – O’Leary 47 FG
Westminster – Rankin Woley, 71 run (Avery Bass kick)
Westminster – Woley, 1 run (Kick failed)