After posting consecutive blowout wins over the St. James Wildcats the past three years, the De La Salle Cavaliers might have had good reason to go to into Friday night’s game thinking this would be another piece of cake.

And after an 11-play opening drive capped by the first of three touchdowns rushing by versatile quarterback/tailback Kendal Collins, they might have been ready to ice it.

But the Cavaliers saw the opponent they expected this year. St. James rallied for two touchdowns in the final 1:17 of the game, though it could not convert a crucial 2-point conversion after the second one, letting De La Salle escape with a 21-19 victory.

Collins scored all three of his team’s touchdowns and finished with 153 yards on 22 carries. Montrell Johnson rushed for 77 yards. Jacolby Hankton napped an interception at the end of the first half that stopped another St. James drive.

Coach Ryan Manale, holding his young son, Brody, who has been hospitalized in recent weeks, was thankful for a myriad of reasons. But he said he knew this would be a different kind of ball game.

“This is coach (Robert) Valdez’s third year,” Manale said. “He’s an incredible coach. They’re a good football team. Their quarterback is phenomenal and one thing we saw on film, their effort is tremendous. They never quit. We’re up 21-6 and we made a big mistake.”

With less than three minutes to play, the Cavaliers were set to punt from their own 42-yard line when a bad snap sailed deep into De La Salle territory. The Wildcats recovered at the 25 and needed only five plays to score. Quarterback Shamar Smith connected with Tyshione Williams for a 9-yard touchdown with 1:17 remaining. Alex Mahler’s PAT made it 21-13.

The Wildcats then executed a near-perfect onside kick, with Zachary Folse and Lamon Lewis winning the fight for the ball at the bottom of the pile for the Wildcats at the De La Salle 37-yard line. Smith threw to Sean Lebeouf for 7 yards, Shazz Preston ran for 12, then ran in from the 5, hurdling all defenders and the goal line for the score with 15 seconds remaining.

But his pass attempt to Williams fell incomplete, leaving the Wildcats trailing 21-19.

This time, the Cavaliers won the fight for the onside kick and were able to run out the clock to seal the win.

Smith was 15 of 35 for 114 yards for the Wildcats. He threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to Logan Gravois in the second quarter, but a missed PAT left St. James trailing 7-6.

Collins would score on a 33-yard run in the second quarter and a 41-yard run in the third.

But he was hoping it wouldn’t be in vain after the Wildcats began their comeback.

“Whew my heart was jumping. I was really scared,” Collins said. “I was hoping that we would come through on defense. We knew it was going to be a close game. They were really great on offense and game against our defense as well.”

Manale said he was already thinking about overtime.

“I had my four favorite plays lined up in my head,” he said.

Valdez refused to call it a moral victory for his team but was proud nonetheless.

“We played with a lot of effort, with a lot of heart,” Valdez said. “After the first drive it could have been a snowball effect. We just kept fighting. I’m just proud of my guys. You play this type of game — this is the one that sticks with you for a long time.”