Hard-luck loss in regional finals aside, seniors take solace in Celtics’ rapid ascent

Oliver Wasem played his final game in a Celtics uniform Friday night as St. John Neumann lost its Class 2A regional final against Champagnat Catholic. SAMANTHA HUSSEY/SPECIAL TO CSI


A gut-wrenching loss to the defending state champs had just ended his high school career. But somehow, Oliver Wasem walked off his home field for the final time Friday night feeling like everything was right with his world.

“This was a good way to go out — we played our butts off,” St. John Neumann’s versatile team leader said after the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs for the second straight season by Hialeah-Champagnat Catholic (8-5), this time with a 21-10 loss in the Class 2A regional finals. “We may have come up short tonight, but we put up a good fight against the state champions. We left it all on the field.”

PHOTO GALLERY: View images from the Lions-Celtics game

That, in a nutshell, not only summarizes Friday night’s season finale, it offers a snapshot of the entire 2018 season, in which the Celtics continued their steady climb since Damon Jones’ arrival as head coach in 2016.

“Going from (5-5 to 9-1 to 10-2) is pretty special,” said Wasem, who rarely leaves the field, playing wide receiver, defensive back and special teams. “I’m proud of my team, making history every year. People are always going to remember this team.”

The fact that Wasem was even strapping on his pads for the playoffs was amazing in itself. Last month he suffered a separated shoulder and was originally told his season was over.

Then his doctor gave him a second opinion. He could play, but the shoulder could absorb a little more damage.

“The doctor said there’s a risk, but I said I’ll take it,” Wasem said. “I’ve aggravated it every game, but it is what it is.”

State touchdown leader Jensen Jones, back, ran the Celtics offense for the final time Friday night. SAMANTHA HUSSEY/SPECIAL TO CSI

Wasem said after he heals up, he hopes to get calls from some small colleges, but at 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, he knows his phone won’t be blowing up. Plan B is to enlist with the Air Force Academy — one of the top schools on teammate Jensen Jones’ recruiting list.

“That would be great if Jensen goes there,” Wasem said. “Who knows, we might be teammates again.”

Jensen Jones, Damon Jones’ son, scored his state-leading 34th touchdown Friday night on a 16-yard run with 9:28 left in the third quarter to trim the Lions’ lead to 14-10. But after that score, a series of plays — including a dropped touchdown pass, a muffed fumble recovery and a couple of questionable officiating calls — prevented a Celtic comeback.

“We had plays in our hands to win this game, and you gotta make those plays when you reach this level,” said Coach Jones, whose team hung with Champagnat on Friday after being dominated by the Lions, 44-12, in last year’s regional semifinal at Hialeah. “But I’m so proud of these suckers. They play hard and do what they’re coached to do. … If I tell them to be here at 4, they’re here at 3:30. If I say be here at 12, they’re here at 11:30. That’s just the way they are.”

Jones and his coaches have developed quite an admiration society for this team — but it’s a two-way street.

Celtics middle linebacker Mauricio Santamarina looks to the Neumann sideline during Friday night’s regional final against Champagnat Catholic. SAMANTHA HUSSEY/SPECIAL TO CSI

“We’re not just a team, we’re a family, and it’s good to be a part of that,” said two-way Celtics lineman Mauricio Santamarina. “(Coach Jones) and the coaching staff do everything for us, so we all want to do the same for them.

“It’s just amazing to see all the changes we’ve gone through. Especially for the seniors, we’ve accomplished a lot together.”

Santamarina’s immediate future likely includes some D-III football — he said Washington University in St. Louis and MIT in Cambridge, Mass., are his top two choices right now — but then he’s not sure what his computer science/engineering degree might lead to.

“There are so many things I could do, so I’ll have to figure that out later,” said Santamarina, who had one B last year on his otherwise straight-A report cards.

Jensen Jones, likewise, can start looking ahead to a future in D-I college football, whether it’s at Air Force, Furman, Butler, Florida Tech or possibly Dartmouth, the school where his dad played tight end after playing at Lely High School.

But the younger Jones said he’s going to miss all of his Neumann teammates.

“It’s such an awesome group of brothers,” Jones said. “I have no doubt that 40 years from now I’ll be calling and chatting with Mauricio. This team is always going to be tight.”