By David W. Healy, Delta Democrat-Times
JACKSON – Of the five state football championships the St. Joseph Catholic School football program has won over the last seven years, the one they won on Friday, Nov. 17 night may be the sweetest.
Unlike in years past, the 2023 version of the Fighting Irish (8-5) were not a super team that dominated the season from start to finish. Instead, they were a bunch of kids who kept fighting through adversity and got better and better as the season wore on.
St. Joseph’s 6-0 victory over Kirk Academy in the MAIS Class 3A State Championship Friday, Nov. 17 at Jackson Academy was much like their season as a whole. It was a gritty victory and the Fighting Irish had to battle until the very end.
Led by senior quarterback Carter Hatchcock, the Kirk Academy Raiders, who entered the title game with a perfect 12-0 record, made one last frantic drive in the final two minutes of the game. The drive ended, however, when a Kirk Academy receiver caught a pass for a first down inside the 3-yard line with three seconds left on the clock.
The game saving tackle was made by St. Joseph junior Chris Moore.
But, because he could not get out of bounds and the Raiders were out of the time outs, the head official restarted the clock and the final seconds ticked off.
After that, the celebration could finally begin.
“This win was all about our defense,” St. Joseph head coach John Baker said. “Our defense stepped up time after time after time.
“This championship was our hardest to win, but our players came together at the right time. And that is what you want to see as a coach, them getting better and better and better every single game. The team we played out here today was undefeated and were a good football team and we rose to the occasion.”
Said senior Greg Fore, “This is my last high school ever, and I could not be happier for my teammates. We were saying that we needed to keep ourselves composed because we have been here before and we knew what to do.”
After a scoreless first half, St. Joseph senior Mikael Jones finally broke loss for an 80-yard touchdown run for the game’s only points with 6:24 left in the third quarter. Once Jones got through the Kirk Academy defensive, he used his speed to outrun the rest of the Raider defenders to the endzone.
The St. Joseph defense made a number of timely plays in the latter part of the game. Fighting Irish senior Maurice Thorton, for example, intercepted a Kirk Academy pass in the opening moments of the fourth quarter.
St. Joseph senior Alex Foster, who is committed to Baylor, then made it two turnovers in the row for the Fighting Irish when he forced and then recovered a fumble at midfield with 10:08 left in the game.
“This win means a lot. It is great to win back-to-back state championships We didn’t have the record we usually have, but we still managed to come out on top. I love being a member of this team,” Foster said.
Although the Irish did not score on their ensuing drive after Foster’s fumble recovery, they did manage to eat up nearly seven minutes of clock thanks to some tough rushes by Quay Nash and a big first-down catch by sophomore Ronnie Williams from sophomore quarterback Victor Baker.
Kirk’s final possession started at their own 16-yard line with 2:29 left in the game. A quarterback sack by Foster put the Raiders further behind the clock, but a 23-yard reception by senior Heath Mabry, and a pass interference call on the St. Joseph defense allowed Kirk to get into the redzone.
Kirk Academy’s Devon Hennis caught a first down pass on fourth-down-and-12 with 21 seconds left in the game to set up the chaotic ending.
“Congratulations to St. Joseph. They are a great team,” Kirk Academy coach Colin Boone said. “Right now, things are a little numb. Hopefully, my players will learn in life that sometimes you come up short. But, at the end of the day, they put it all on the line and that is all that matters.”
The St. Joseph football team won three consecutive state championships in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Next year, they will look to notch their second three peat as since the Irish are now the champions of 2022 and 2023.
(Permission to reprint granted by Delta Democrat-Times)