WILMINGTON – Through 18 regular-season games covering nearly two full seasons, Joe Aviola had been waiting for his St. Elizabeth Vikings to collect a win that would validate everything he and his staff have been trying to accomplish at the school. On Friday night, that night finally arrived, as the Vikings withstood a furious comeback attempt and held off St. Mark’s, 33-31, at Baynard Stadium.
Following the win, which wasn’t assured until a 31-yard St. Mark’s field-goal attempt narrowly missed wide left on the game’s final play, the St. Elizabeth’s players embraced and jumped up and down at midfield. Several of the seniors, playing their last home game, told their teammates how much playing for the Vikings meant to them. Aviola, over and over, told his team how proud he was of their effort.
“It means everything in the world to our program that we’re trying to rebuild,” he said. “This week, luck or not, we’ll take it. I was just so happy for our kids that we played a full game, and we finished. That was a signature win that we’ve been looking for.”
It was a team effort, but the star for St. Elizabeth on this night was running back Chris Cropper. The sophomore ran for more than 300 yards and four long touchdowns, all of which he made look easy.
“In the beginning it wasn’t working out. We tried to go inside a lot. The coaches saw it, so they started going toss a lot. Our linemen saw it; they started making bigger holes, and I just hit it,” he said.
The final quarter began with the Vikings holding a 20-17 lead. St. Elizabeth had the ball after blocking a St. Mark’s field goal, and with 10:10 to go, Cropper took a handoff from quarterback Michael Jamison off right tackle. He shook a defender or two and was off to the races, scoring from 72 yards – and that was only his third-longest of the evening.
St. Mark’s answered three minutes later. From the Vikings’ 30, Spartans quarterback Billy Sullivan hit Austin Colmery on the right hash mark. Colmery rumbled toward the end zone, but he was hit and fumbled near the three. The ball rolled into the end zone, where St. Mark’s Thomas Armiger fell on it for the score.
That was no problem for St. Elizabeth, as Cropper got it back on a 54-yard run. The point after was missed, and the Vikings led, 33-24, with just 3:02 to go. St. Mark’s took possession on its own 47, and on first down Jamai Rice was on the back end of a hook and lateral play down to the Vikings’ 22. Sullivan then hit Colmery at the 10, and two downs later – from the 15 after a Spartans penalty – he found Peyton Schultz in the end zone. The deficit was two, 33-31, with 1:31 remaining.
St. Elizabeth recovered the onside kick but went three and out, and a shanked punt gave St. Mark’s the ball at the Vikings’ 46 and a new lease on life. Rice ran on first down for 17 yards, stopping the clock. After a spike, Sullivan hit Rice for 10 yards and another first down at the 19. Spartans kicker Chris Ludman came out and nailed a 36-yard field goal on first down, but St. Elizabeth was called for encroachment, wiping out the field goal. Ludman lined up a 31-yard attempt, but it missed just left as the clock expired, setting off a wild scene on the home sideline.
“I was hoping that we could come off the edge and maybe distract him. If he’s not the best kicker, he’s one of the best in the state,” Aviola said.
Cropper scored the most, but he wasn’t first. On a night of big plays, the Vikings struck midway through the first when Jamison took a snap and went around left end untouched for a 74-yard score. After a Ludman field goal, St. Mark’s took its only lead with 10:13 to go in the second quarter on a 49-yard touchdown run for Schultz.
St. Elizabeth responded with a 65-yard drive that featured Cropper almost exclusively, although Jamison converted a third-and-nine with a 12-yard run. Cropper finished that drive with a 36-yard run on the left side with 5:52 left in the second. St. Mark’s marched down the field and looked poised to tie the score or take the lead before halftime, but the Spartans lost the ball on a fumble at the Vikings’ six in the final minute of the half.
Looking to get away from its own end zone and into halftime with a three-point lead, Jamison handed the ball to Cropper on first down. He found an opening to his left, reached the sideline and was gone for a 94-yard score.
A punt by Ludman that was downed at the St. Elizabeth one set up the only points of the third quarter. The Vikings punted from deep in their own end zone, and Rice made them pay with a 38-yard return for a touchdown, setting up the wild fourth quarter.
It was a win that Jamison said even some St. Elizabeth supporters doubted could happen. “In my heart, I knew this was going to be a win for us. We did what we had to do,” he said. “It means everything to me because this was the first time I was able to actually play against St. Mark’s and actually be able to make a contribution to this win.”
St. Mark’s fell to 4-5 and will finish its season next Thursday against rival Salesianum at Delaware Stadium at 7:30 p.m. The Vikings, also 4-5, travel to Claymont to wrap up the campaign against Archmere. Kickoff is at noon.