By Matt Diano: For the second weekend in a row, it would be a huge streak of unanswered points that proved to make the difference for Head Coach Mike O’Donnell, and his Archbishop Stepinac squad in propelling them to championship glory…Last Saturday, the Crusaders fought back from an initial 14-0 1st quarter deficit by putting the next 34 straight points on the board en route to claiming their third NYCHSFL AAA crown in a span of four years, 47-22 over St. Anthony’s….This afternoon, it would be a 26-0 third quarter rally that not only gave them the lead but also plenty of breathing room as they avenged their 2014 loss (23-10) in the inaugural Catholic State title game by completely overwhelming the defending titlists, Canisius, 49-28. The triumph on the road (the visiting team remained undefeated, 4-0, in the short history of the contest) closed out the 2017 season for the boys from White Plains with a mark of 10-2. It also secured them the CHSAA State brass ring for the second time in the past three years (previously won in 2015, beating St. Francis, 42-28), tying them with their nicknamesakes [Canisius] with two apiece.
Trailing 14-9 at the break with their only points in the first 24 minutes coming on a safety on the final play of the first quarter (gang tackle in the end zone by Joey Cappiello, Douglas Simmons, and De’Andre Smith) and then a 75-yard TD dart over the middle on 3rd-and-5th from Michael Nicosia to Shawn Harris Jr. less than one minute later (11:09 remaining in the 2nd quarter), things looked out of sync offensively at the onset of the game for Stepinac. On multiple series throughout the first two quarters, they demonstrated an ability to move the ball deep into opponent territory, but seemed unable to cap off those drives. They started off the game by having three of their first four 1st half possessions end as such: turnover on downs (incomplete pass on 4th-and-20; holding penalty pushed them out of the red zone), interception by Canisius’ senior CB, Keenan Ollison in the end zone on a throw from inside the 10-yard line), and turnover on downs (incomplete pass intended on 4th-and-14th at around opposing 16-yard line). The only offensive points were recorded on the aforementioned home run hurl to Harris on AS’s third drive.
The second half would be an entirely different story though as points would come in bunches for the Red, White, and Blue army, commencing less than 90 seconds into the third quarter when Nicosia scrambled to buy time and then found a wide open Trill Williams at the Canisius 30-yard line. With nothing but open space in front of him, the future Syracuse Orangeman did the rest, running untouched to the end zone to complete the 61-yard play and give Stepinac a 16-14 lead that they would never relinquish.
The Stepinac defense having found their groove and forced a punt on Canisius’s first turn with the ball in the 3rd quarter, the offense made it two productive drives in a row when Malik Grant, who established a new career best on the ground with 130 yards rushing (11 carries) on the afternoon, shot through the middle and cruised 25 yards to the promised land to up the edge to 22-14 (missed XP) with 7:10 left to play in the 3rd….The scoring trek was set up by the play that preceded it as Nicosia, who was so masterful in his final appearance under center, danced his way to a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-long to keep control of the pigskin for his school.
The predicament they faced went from bad to worse for the Rich Robbins guided version of the Crusaders when on 3rd-and-5, junior tailback, Joe Jamison, paid the price for trying to fight for additional yards as Stepinac 11th grader defensive back, Tyler DeCrescenzo, ripped “the precious” free and bolted 42 yards for the always valuable defensive touchdown to create further cushion, 29-14, at just under the midway point of the third stanza….The fumble for a touchdown would be one of two takeaways credited to the 5’11, 175-pound Port Chester resident. In the last four minutes of the 4th quarter, he showed why you always practice the tip drill, adding an interception (on the STEP 27) to his resume on a ball that was initially knocked into air by Cappiello.
Following a shanked punt that put the ball on the opponent’s 30 yard line, it was the “Jack-of-all trades”, the “Thriller” himself [Williams] scoring his second touchdown of the game when he took a handoff wide, side-stepped a pair of would-be tacklers and tight roped his way 18 yards down the far sideline for the TD with 3:19 remaining in the 3rd quarter to account for the last six points (another missed PAT) of the game-turning rally. On the previous play, it was Nicosia on a QB draw up the gut for the other 12 yards of the series.
Canisius, who had been forced to endure the misfortune of being held scoreless for a period of around 20 minutes between the end of the 2nd quarter and the start of the 4th, finally got on the board in the second half when the star of the 2016 title contest [313 yards, 5 TD passes in the 50-44 win over Cardinal Hayes], senior field general, Jayce Johnson tossed the first of a pair of touchdown passes to fellow 12th grader, RJ Brandon, from seven yards away just five seconds into the final quarter of their scholastic careers to briefly keep hope alive by cutting the deficit to 35-21.
That faith would be short-lasting however as Stepinac immediately issued a response when on back-to-back snaps, Grant ran 54 yards to the Canisius 13 and Harris polished off the drive by busting through for the remainder to again make it a three-score margin, 42-21 with only 10:40 unspoken for.
Never an offense in the habit of taking their foot off the gas, Stepinac tacked on one more “6” with 4:49 on the clock, as Williams allowed those in attendance and watching at home to bank just a few more candid memories of his God-given talents when after moving the chains on a 1st down run on 3rd-and-12, he made one of the best plays of the season, catching a 21-yard pass while flat on his back (The play was so good that ESPN SportsCenter deemed it #1 in their Top 10 for the day) in the end zone for his second receiving TD, third overall on the day, and seventh score in the past two weekends to make the score 49-21….He also racked up his third interception in the past two games when he won a jump ball early in the 2nd quarter.
As the clock dipped under 1:00 to go in the 2017 season, Canisius would make the final score a little more respectable as Johnson hooked up with Brandon on a long 50-yard pass….While his career is not ending the way he prayed it would, Johnson should still hold his head mighty high, as even in defeat he put forth a solid showing in his finale, having a hand in all of the Canisius touchdowns…In addition to the two passes to Brandon, he also had deuce touchdown runs from 1-yard out (plunged in on a second effort) for the first score of the game in the 1st quarter and a 53-yard QB option in the 2nd that make the score 14-9.
Ending the game with 338 yards on the ground, unsung hero honors have to be bestowed upon the middle of the Stepinac offensive line, who time and time again blew open tunnels for their assortment of backs….While you never want to single out one name or face, let it be known that sophomore guard, Ajani Cornelius, and junior pivot, Shadi Rabadi, whose names were uttered more than sporadically, are going to be massive (in size and significance) towards any repeat ambitions in 2018. They, along with junior OTs, James Prince and Jonathan Mucciolo are going to be the anchors in the trenches for perhaps the best returning offensive line in the Empire State.
Wrapping up this chapter of their football careers in style were Nicosia, who chucked for 182 yards and three scores (to give him 30 on the year) on 9-for-18 passing, and Williams, who accumulated 141 yards of total offense, running for 66 yards and one TD on eight carries and catch three balls (2 touchdowns) for an additional 75 yards of production…..Harris Jr., who will be back in 2018, also put on a show, scoring one touchdown apiece with his hands and legs and surpassing his living legend teammate [Williams] atop the total production chart with 164 yards (86 rushing on 10 handoffs; 78 receiving on a trio of grabs).
Note: Special Thanks to News 12 Varsity whose stats we used in this summary