FORT PIERCE — Winning in the trenches during the postseason separates elite teams from very good teams.
When it counted the most, John Carroll Catholic’s front seven on defense and its talented offensive line made sure the Rams reached a place they’ve wanted to be for a long time.
A key tackle for a loss by star sophomore TJ Alford helped halt a late Lakeland Christian drive and the legs of junior running back Tony Colebrook killed off the final 4:35 to send John Carroll to a 14-7 victory and its first state semifinal since 2003.
Colebrook finished the night with 43 carries good for 231 yards and had a critical 27-yard run to begin the game-sealing drive, getting the Rams out from deep in their own territory.
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“I give (Lakeland Christian) a lot of credit, they did a lot of things we weren’t accounting for and it took us a little while to get it going,” John Carroll Catholic head coach Mickey Groody said. “I’m glad on that last drive when we ran out the clock we were able to make some things work.
“It just really shows the grit of our team, it was a true team effort in all three phases and we needed that. That’s what this round of the playoffs is, you’re going to need play four quarters in all three phases and I thought our guys did a phenomenal job of that.”
TCPalm dives in to the three biggest takeaways that shaped how the Rams got the job done.
Rams fly out of the gate
After starting off slow in their 38-7 win over Cardinal Mooney last week scoring just seven first half points, John Carroll rode their bell cow to make an early statement.
Colebrook had it going early on the ground, rushing eight times on John Carroll’s first possession and cashed in from eight yards out to put the Rams (10-1) ahead 7-0 four minutes in.
Late in the first quarter, John Carroll pounced on a turnover to add to their lead.
Senior Anthony Ferraro, who returned an interception for a touchdown last week, recovered a fumble off a bad quarterback-running back exchange from Lakeland Christian.
Three plays later, senior quarterback Dawson Maehl ripped a 24-yard touchdown strike down the middle to classmate Aidan Singleton to make it 14-0 Rams.
From there, Lakeland Christian’s defense made its adjustments to handle John Carroll’s game plan of feeding Colebrook.
Vikings stay the course
The Viking offense finally mounted a positive drive midway through the second quarter working just outside of the red zone but Alford blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt from Lakeland Christian’s Adrian Villanueva.
A wild end to the first half followed as John Carroll’s Zanni Miller intercepted a pass and Lakeland Christian’s Mack Estrada stripped Maehl on a pass attempt for a fumble recovered by Carver Wineinger on back-to-back plays.
The Vikings (9-2) capitalized on the exchange as Parker St. John lofted up a 24-yard touchdown pass to TC Bell in the final minute of the half to cut the lead to 14-7.
Lakeland Christian nearly capitalized on another Ram turnover as Reemari Collins picked off a pass from Maehl but a 50-yard field goal try from Villanueva was short to end the half.
Both defenses were the story for the second half as neither offense came close to the red zone the rest of the way.
Lakeland Christian’s Trey Brady picked off Maehl with 6:47 remaining at midfield to give the Vikings a final shot.
Rotating quarterbacks with a gimpy St. John still not 100 percent from a leg injury sustained last week against Victory Christian and using Parker Galberaith to run the ball, the Vikings couldn’t find a big play when they needed it and a final punt at midfield was followed by the Rams eating the rest of the clock on the ground.
“(John Carroll’s) tough, to hold them to 14 points that was big for us,” Lakeland Christian head coach Danny Williams said. “We settled in defensively but offensively, if we took two steps forward, we took three steps back and you can’t do that against a good team like that.
“Our kids competed, when you play a game like this and the kids leave it all out there, you can walk off the field with your head held high. It wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
Senior class seals the deal
Ultimately, while John Carroll never could get back into a rhythm offensively, the Rams did what they needed to late to ice the game.
Colebrook had his biggest runs of the game on the final drive and running behind seniors Austin Shevak, Zarious Raifrod and Will Thogersen, he felt he needed to bring the victory home to reward their efforts.
“At the end of the day, I felt like it was on me for us to get the winning drive and for us to chew up the clock and I felt good when I got it and we succeeded at the end of the day,” Colebrook said.
The core of the defense with Singleton, Auburn commit Wilky Denaud and Josh Meltzer have played together since they entered as freshman and after back-to-back years falling short of a Final Four by a game, the trio shined.
Meltzer, who racked up four tackles for a loss, felt that the work the team as a whole has put into making their last season as leaders on the team a success culminated Friday night into a moment the Rams have wanted from the start of the year.
“It feels amazing, we haven’t done it in 19 years I believe, it’s just a great team effort,” Meltzer said. “All of our seniors, we’ve been battling the last three years of our lives to get to this moment. We’ve finally succeeded and it’s a great feeling.”
The focus for the Rams now shifts to a state semifinal next Friday night against a familiar opponent.
Two years ago, Colebrook, Ferraro, Shevak, Thogersen, Singleton, Denaud and Meltzer all were part of the John Carroll team that went up to Ocala and Trinity Catholic in a regional final and returned home after a 48-0 rout by the Celtics.
Now, the two teams will meet again with a spot in the state title game going to the winner again being decided in Ocala as the Celtics handled P.K. Yonge with a 48-7 victory in their regional final.
“It’s going to be tough, it was tough tonight, it was tough last week and that’s what the playoffs are about,” Groody said. “That’s why you’ve got to earn your way. I felt like God’s going to test us this year to earn our ultimate goal which is winning a state championship and he’s doing a good job of that right now but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m just super proud of us, our program, our fans, our parents. It’s been an awesome, awesome time.”