WASHINGTON, D.C. – The unbelievable happened in a momentous showdown between the DeMatha Catholic and Gonzaga College High School football teams on the evening of Nov. 18.
After running back Dean Engram was taken down a few yards short of the 50-yard line, on the next snap with time expiring, quarterback Caleb Williams dropped back and launched a desperation pass from the 47-yard line to the end zone into the hands of receiver John Marshall, sealing the close win for the Eagles.
“I trusted in myself and us, and our coaches said we’re just going to get you in range to throw it” Williams said. “And they got me in range, put it in the back of the end zone to No. 14 (Marshall) and it was a great catch by him.”
Including his last-second heave, Williams made a number of gutsy-but-worthwhile plays down the stretch, especially late in the fourth quarter, to lift the Eagles to a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) championship win, 46-43 – in the most unimaginable way possible – at the ecstatic Cardinal Stadium on Nov. 18.
The final minute of the game might have been the wildest, most unthinkable ending in high school football this season. Gonzaga and DeMatha traded three touchdowns in the last 60 seconds in a clash that came down to the very last second.
Trailing 36-33 with 39 seconds remaining, Williams threw a 50-yard pass to receiver Sam Sweeney to get Gonzaga to the red zone. The following play, Williams connected with Sweeney again on an 11-yard play to put the Eagles up 40-36 with 29 seconds left.
On the ensuing kickoff, DeMatha’s Dominic Logan-Nealy returned it about 60 yards for an astonishing touchdown as the Stags reclaimed the lead with only 15 seconds to go. The Stags sideline and fan base knew they had game in the bag — until the improbable happened.
“We believed we were destined to win. You know, we believed that coming in here,” Gonzaga Head Coach Randy Trivers after he held up the championship trophy with tears in his eyes.
The crowd stood in utter disbelief and shock as time ran out on the game clock. DeMatha fans, players and coaches cried tears of disappointment and sadness, while Gonzaga’s side cried tears of joy after experiencing perhaps the most unfathomable moment in local high school football this season.
Of the Eagles’ three losses (9-3), their toughest came to DeMatha in triple overtime, 27-12, on Oct. 12 in Hyattsville. Williams, a 6-foot-1 sophomore who reportedly has offers from at least five elite programs, said the disheartening loss to long-established rival was fuel for the conference win.
Williams finished throwing 14-of-27 passing for 340 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a nine-yard reverse touchdown in the third quarter and rushed 88 yards for two additional scores, leading the Eagles to their first conference title in 16 years against DeMatha, one of its most formidable, long-standing rivals.
“It’s everything… It’s the fight that we have in us, after them three tough losses that we had,” he said of what the miracle win means for the program.
Trivers said his team has repeatedly practiced late-game, desperation situations every week so his guys would be ready whenever the time arose, and was pleased that the Eagles capitalized on what they rehearsed, calling it a “great team victory.”
“It went down to the wire, and they came out with the victory, but [tonight] we were the tougher team, the better team as in us being together… and us trusting and believing in each other and ourselves,” Williams said. “We started off really slow, but came out the second half and dominated. And that’s all that matters.”
DeMatha (8-3) was in control for most of the game, holding 20-0 advantage in the second quarter. Stags quarterback Eric Najarian threw 14-of-20 for 197 yards for three touchdowns, along with a one-yard rushing score.
Wide receiver and defense back DeMarcco Hellams led the way for the Stags with four receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns plus an interception.
“We knew it was coming; they had no timeouts left. But they just made more plays than we did,” Hellams, a University of Alabama football commit, said. “It was something that we improved on from last year, but going to a school like this, if you don’t get the championship it was a failure. So in my opinion the season was a failure.”
DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks, let down with the outcome, said he was still proud of his team’s effort despite costly mistakes made toward the end.
The painful manner that the game ended is “gonna take a little bit of time to get over” but Brooks hopes that his team understands how well they played this season.
“We just didn’t make enough plays. We had our chances to close out the game,” he said. “…You allow a good team like Gonzaga to stay around, this is what happens so all credit goes to Gonzaga for a heck of a game.
“My mindset from here is trying to get this game out of my memory,” Hellams said. “I committed before the season… just to focus my whole year on getting a championship for this team. I’m just sorry I couldn’t get it done.”