Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep knew its reign as national champion was going to end this season. Such a title is difficult for any national program to hold.
But when the longtime N.J. power entered the locker room of its Non-Public Group 4 final up 17 on rival Bergen Catholic Friday night, it had no idea its hold on the No. 1 ranking in its own state was so precarious.
Don Bosco survived a furious second-half rally by Bergen Catholic - halting a late fourth-quarter drive with an interception then icing the game when Paul Canaveri busted through the line on a 4th-and-1 play for a 48-yard TD with less than a minute to go - to come away with a 37-27 victory at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
"We just came out ready to play and the line got a push," Canaveri told reporters after the game. "They always say power. They never want me East and West. They always say North and South and that's what I'm going to do."
Canaveri, a converted defensive end, was the star throughout, finishing the game with 264 yards and five TDs on 35 carries. He saved the season when he busted his long scoring run at the end.
This, after he seemingly wrapped up the game in the first two quarters.
Canaveri had 168 yards and four TDs when Don Bosco ran out to a 31-14 halftime lead - a lead that seemingly would have been bigger but Bosco ran out of time and had to settle for a final-play field goal to cap the half.
Bosco's inability to get into the end zone in the final seconds of the second quarter, however, foresha-dowed the second half.
Bergen Catholic shut down Canaveri and managed to put up two scores of its own to pull to 31-27. When it recovered an onside kick with just under six minutes to go, an upset in the making was on.
Bosco, No. 11 in this week's RivalsHigh Top 100, responded with an interception by Yuri Wright on its own 12 before going on its game-clinching drive.
The victory was the school's 12th straight this season and 35th straight overall. And it capped a season that - oddly - may have done more to justify Bosco's national championship in 2009 than the school did that season.
Many felt Don Bosco moved to the top in 2009 because so many other national powers faltered. That it was a fallback choice for a team that had a couple of solid - though not necessarily spectacular - out-of-state wins before dominating a solid - but far from spectacular - state.
And many felt the loss of a senior class that sent a whopping 11 scholarship players would drop the program back into the pack nationally.
That didn't happen. Don Bosco was dominant again, right from the start, when Canaveri ran for 321 yards in a surprising 33-6 victory at Baltimore (Md.) Gilman. It followed that two weeks later with a victory at Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius by the same score and a 38-18 victory over Bergen Catholic in their regular-season meeting.
Don Bosco really hadn't been challenged until the fourth quarter Friday night. The team's response pleased coach Greg Toal.
"We've got great, great coaches, great kids," he said. "We were blessed this year. We weren't sure what type of year we were going to have but our kids believed in us and we worked hard and we continued to get better and better."
Quarterback Gary Nova, one of the few returning starters from a year ago, said you can't compare the seasons.
"Last year we were playing for a national championship; this year, people didn't expect us to be as good as we are," he said. "It kind of feels better in a way, my senior year going out with a win."
As for a second national championship: Nova knows it isn't coming - he just wishes he had a chance to fight for it.
"I would take this group of guys against anybody in the country," he said.