St. Mary’s players cast their gaze downward, shaking their heads, muttering disappointment to one another as another pass died on the turf. The visitors, Archbishop Carroll, had stirred up a party on its sideline after taking the lead, now trying to close out the win.
The clock slipped to a dire two minutes and change and the Saints’ offense twisted at its own 25-yard line. Unfazed, St. Mary’s freshman quarterback DJ Hitaffer cocked his arm and a comet spirited across the sky.
All hints of despondency shed in an instant. Senior wideout Joey Israel collected Hitaffer’s slant and carved a 75-yard path to the end zone with the miraculous victory in his hands.
There were plenty of drives the Saints’ offense would rather forget, wasted potential littering the field over and over again. But it was difficult for the St. Mary’s players to feel any regrets as they celebrated their first win of the season, 20-15, over a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference opponent.
“We’ll take it,” Saints coach Jason Budroni said. “A win’s a win, whether it’s a WCAC school or public school. It’s one step at a time; we played much better than we did last game. We’ll continue to get better and better.”
Taking the reins from a senior quarterback would’ve been a weighty enough burden for Hitaffer. Leading a green offense after a wave of graduation even more so. But to do it all on the heels of an undefeated season could’ve broke other freshmen.
Hitaffer, eyes shining after his first win, didn’t feel the stress of it. He hadn’t all game. He simply “played his butt off,” his coach said, and made the big plays he knew he could do.
“I know my role: Lead,” Hitaffer said. “At this point in the season, I’m not a freshman anymore. I’m a quarterback.”
Budroni knew in August his veteran defense would be an anchor while the offense worked things out, and the unit proved its coach right Friday. Maryland commit Davon Watkins slammed a field goal attempt down; Izzy Crockett pulled down an interception, as did senior Cameron Shortridge. Sophomore Connor McAndrew recovered a fumble, while senior linebacker Bruce Dent grabbed two.
“Carroll played well. They’ve got some playmakers on that team and they made it tough on us,” Budroni said. “But defense played their butts off and made big plays.”
It took a full game of trial and error for St. Mary’s (1-1-1) to steam out the wrinkles in its offense.
St. Mary’s defense kept the visiting Lions mostly corralled while the Saints’ offense squandered opportunities over and over again. Despite marching into the red zone twice, 4 yards from the end zone, St. Mary’s ultimately settled for a 22-yard field goal midway through the second quarter.
“They were doing a good job of crashing our backside,” Budroni said. “The way we run our offense, we usually got that backside guy blocked, and he was killing us.”
Later, Crockett might’ve been better off breaking up the pass that he ended up intercepting. Had he left the fourth-down pass attempt fall, the Saints would’ve taken over at midfield. Instead, Hitaffer took the reins on his own 15.
The story repeated but with a worse ending — the offensive line gave way. Hitaffer scattered toward the sideline, desperately seeking a receiver. He found one, but wearing the wrong colors.
Lions senior Jerrium Berry snagged his interception at the 17. One 14-yard pass later, Archbishop Carroll was ahead, 6-3, with just a minute left before halftime.
Hitaffer rolled the gears with pass plays from his own 20 into Lions territory. Thirty seconds remaining crumbled to six, the freshman signal-caller had one shot — and a senior receiver barreling toward the end zone.
“That’s all it is,” he said. “Stay focused and don’t panic.”
Crockett plucked the ball at the 20 and peeled free of his defender, speeding into the end zone with the Saints touchdown. St. Mary’s once again sat in the driver’s seat, 10-6, when time expired.
But the second half dragged St. Mary’s back into bad habits. They could only add a field goal following a turnover.
And the Lions took the chance to flip the momentum. Senior Camren Williams slipped through the Saints’ defense for another Carroll touchdown to get within 13-12. The stifled 2-point conversion didn’t seem to affect the Lions’ appetite, either, as shortly after, the visitors once again drove down to the red zone to boot a go-ahead field goal.
Frustration set into the Saints then, but not for everyone. Hitaffer didn’t need two-and-a-half minutes to fix things. He needed about 30 seconds and a good play.
“I saw it presnap and knew [Israel] was gonna be there,” Hitaffer. “It was a really cool play.”
Next week, St. Mary’s begins to answer whether it can still rule the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference, starting with a game at John Carroll. And should it play out similarly to Friday’s mix, Hitaffer knows how his team can get through.
“Bad things happen and you just have to keep your composure,” Hitaffer said. “You stay focused, and this is what happens.”