By Matt Diano:
Seth Surrett (Sr.); RB/DB – Kennedy Catholic Gaels
Playing for the first time this season as a “solo act” in the backfield after it was announced that his band mate”, Myles Proctor (Single A rushing leader with 978 yards) would be sidelined for their semifinal game against Nazareth Regional, the 5’10, 180-pound Newburgh native [Surrett] would clarify that even if he wears jersey #2 and entered the game trailing his teammate for the top spot among all A Division runners, he most certainly does not play second fiddle to anyone in the NYCHSFL.
The first student-athlete of the 2018 season to be named a Player of the Week on three separate occasions (previously recognized during weeks 1 and 4), the Kennedy Catholic senior would score all three of his school’s touchdowns in their 21-12 victory at home last Friday night.
A defensive stalemate for first 17 minutes of competition, Surrett would break the ice with approximately seven minutes remaining in the opening half when he punched in his 10th rushing touchdown of the season from the 1-yard-line to make the score 7-0 Gaels.
With the KC advantage cut to 7-6 early in the 3rd quarter, again it would be Surrett providing the spark, as he responded to a Nazareth punt by exploding up the middle, cutting to the outside, and then side-stepping a Kingsmen defender to go 42 yards to the house to increase the lead to 14-6.
His third and last score of the evening came about two and a half minutes later (7:08 remaining in the 3rd), when on 3rd-and-8 from his own 33, Surrett would showcase his abilities as receiver, making the grab on a screen-pass and then simply out-running the entire Naz defense, as he cruised 67-yards in front of his own sideline for the backbreaking TD that made the score 21-6.
All in all, by the time the final horn sounded, Surrett had broken his previous career-highs for carries and rushing yards by handling the ball 23 times for 194 yards. His two touchdowns on the ground marked the fourth time (2x against Nazareth) this season he ran for multiple scores…His three total TDs was the most he had posted since having a three rushing + 1 receiving touchdown effort in the week #1 win over St. Dominic’s….The 261 yards of all-purpose contributions was a new personal-best.
Defensively, he rounded out his night by making four stops, including one for minus yardage.
Now one win away from claiming the first NYCHSFL crown in program history, all that stands in the way of Surrett and the Gaels from taking the trip to Titletown is a third showdown with the defending champions, Cardinal Spellman….Aiding his school in sweeping the regular season home-and-home series by identical 21-7 scores on September 29th and October 26th, Surrett combined to rush for 145 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries (8.1/carry) between the two contests…Dangerous in any situation where the pigskin is in his arms, he also returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown during the second meeting.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last Years NYCHSFL “A” Defensive Player of the Year, Cole Esposito, The 6’1, 205-pound Cortlandt Manor resident played what was statistically his finest game ever as a three-year member of the Gael varsity…Falling one tackle short of tying his personal-best of 18 that he established against St. Joseph’s by the Sea on October 19th, it would still be a record-breaking night for #51, as his 11 tackles for a loss and three QB bags were new career-highs. He cemented his phenomenal performance by generating a turnover on his third forced fumble of the season.
Ethan Ortiz (Jr.); FB/DL – Cardinal Spellman Pilots
For the fourth straight season, William Cawley and the Cardinal Spellman Pilots will be advancing to championship weekend. The Bronx based school successfully earned the right to defend their “A” division crown this past Saturday when they shutout their guests from Oyster Bays, the St. Dominic’s Bayhawks, for the third time this season, 23-0.
Setting the example on both sides of the ball for our defending champions would be the 6’0, 202-pounder local product [Ortiz] who pulled off the rare “double-play” on November 10th, scoring points on both offense and defense.
A seldom utilized option out of the backfield in 2018, Ortiz entered the game having carried the ball just 12 times this season for 97 yards…However, despite only taking one hand-off for an 11- yard gain in the two regular games between the two schools, the Pilots’ coaching staff must have seen a match-up they felt they could exploit, as Ortiz would be fed a season-high eight times last weekend, gaining 40 yards and scoring one of the three rushing touchdowns earned by Spellman. This was just his second TD of his junior campaign, with his first introduction to the end zone coming all the way back during a week #4 loss to the Pilots’ finals opponent, Kennedy Catholic.
Defensively, the 11th grader would be equally imposing, as he tied his career-high of 20 tackles (previously set against this same Bayhawk squad on October 6th), including one stop that in the Dom’s end zone that resulted in a safety. These two points would give Ortiz eight overall on the afternoon, making him the team’s leading scorer for the day.
Ortiz, who has posted double-digit tackles games in eight of his nine appearances in 2018, will step onto the Mitchel Field Athletic complex this weekend as the leading tackler in the “A” division with 121 stops. This statistic also ranks him 2nd in all of the NYCHSFL and places him 6th in terms of the Empire State as a whole…
Taking into consideration that the path to a Spellman repeat will likely involve the ability to shutout the 1-2 punch of Proctor and Surrett, it goes without saying that #34 in Scarlet & White will need to be at his best on November 17th…In two games this season against the Gaels, he has averaged 13.5 stops. As impressive as this may be, the bar may be set even higher if the “w” is in the cards.
Milton Guzman (Sr.); OT/DT – Xavier Knights
As Knights’ Head Coach, Chris Stevens, phrased perfectly, “What a difference a few weeks can make.”…When Xavier and Holy Trinity met during the regular season on October 13th, the two school combined to score 57 points (29-28 Titan victory) and accumulate 664 yards of total yardage.
This past Sunday, in a CHSFL double-A semifinal contest that pitted the #2 seeds from the Eastern Conference [HT] against the #3 from the West [Xavier], points would be at a premium and the NYC school would get their revenge, as the lone score of the game would come in the last 90 seconds of the third quarter when Anthony Bruno finished out a 92-yard drive with a touchdown run to send the Knights back to Championship weekend for the first time since they won it all in 2015.
Opposed by a Titan offense that took the field averaging 33 points and just under 305 yards of total production (249.9 on the ground), the Knights would be unrelenting and punishing in their pursuit of Holy Trinity ball carriers…Holding their hosts from Hicksville both scoreless (the third consecutive shutout posted by the Maroon & Blue) and under 100 yards rushing for the first time this season, there is no doubt that we are witnessing a flashback to the days of Frank Masella, Zach Cilmi, Rory Kinsella, Anthony Pugliese, Clayton Kendrick-Holmes, Malik Fisher, and all of the other members of that impenetrable defense from three years ago that swallowed up enemy running backs like a black hole…The only difference is that the names and faces of the personnel have changed…Instead of the gentlemen cited above, the new wave of superstars are known as Valery Gwardyak, James Donaldson, Kevin Connelly, Jordan Sosa, and especially the 6’0, 235-pounder out of Yonkers, [Milton] Guzman.
Hailed by his head coach for the ideal timing of his big afternoon, Guzman had would be credited with a season-high 10 stops (4 solo, 6 assisted) in last Sunday’s semifinal triumph…Entering the game tied with Sosa for the team-lead in tackles for a loss, #54 for Xavier now sits alone atop the stat sheet, as his two TFLs give him 11.5 on the season…To complement his stellar effort, Guzman would also tack on his second sack of the season, and remarkably recorded yet another fumble recovery, making it two appearances in a row and three of his past four games that his alertness yielded a turnover.
Having passed one immense test in the semis, the Knights defense will now face their greatest challenge in the finals when they square off with defending AA champs, Kellenberg Memorial…The owners of the #1 offensive in the entire NYCHFL (40.9 ppg), the Firebirds have run for 2,957 yards and 45 touchdowns in 2018….In the first meeting during week #3, the Xavier defense did a solid job holding KMHS to 20 yards on the ground (91 yards less than their seasonal average)…Guzman would make four tackles, including one for negative yardage on September 22nd.
Thomas Cipolla (Sr.); OT/DE – Kellenberg Memorial Firebirds
The captain, anchor, and heartbeat in the trenches for the defending AA champion Firebirds, there is not much, if anything, that occurs along the line of scrimmage that the two-year starter out of Island Park does not have an integral role in making happen.
A force on both sides of the ball, at 6’4, 243-pounds, the KMHS 12th grader is difficult to miss on the sidelines because of his stature, but impossible to overlook on the field because of his skillful and often times dominant level of play.
Forced to abandon the balanced offensive scheme they prefer due to excessive winds last Saturday night, Kellenberg would rely heavily on the ground game in their semifinal game against Fordham Prep. With 41 of their 46 offensive plans coming in the form of a run, much of the success enjoyed by the Blue and Gold in their 47-20 victory would be a byproduct of the spectacular performance put forth by Cipolla and his line mates…Running behind their stout right tackle, seven different KMHS student-athletes would take a turn at carrying the ball, as the Hanifan guided program established new season-highs for attempts (41), yardage (384), and touchdowns (7) in punching their own ticket back to championship weekend!
Led by the three touchdown apiece showings of Matt Sluka (77 yards on 16 carries) and Jordan Delucia (191 yards on 16 hand-offs), Kellenberg would find the end zone from distances of 21, 21, 42, 1, 41, and 8 yards out through the first three quarters…Well in control of the contest (up 40-14) at the time, Kellenberg added one final TD on the ground when senior, Nick Repoli, scored his first touchdown of the year on a 13-yarder early in the 4th quarter…While he did not score, another senior, Frankie Roder, contributed 66 yards on just three carries.
Demonstrating that there is “no rest for the wicked,” to borrow from a Cage the Elephant tune, the honors student/Eucharistic Minister/Marianist mentor would play almost every snap of the game…Teaming up with fellow senior, Paul “PJ” McGuinness, Cipolla earned the praise of his head coach, who stated the following: “Our ends were flying off the edge in every pass situation, causing great discomfort to the always potent the Rams’ aerial attack.”…Recording one of his school’s six sacks on the night, #71 was consistently in the backfield, finishing the game with three stops in total, a caused fumble, countless QB hurries in helping Firebird Football Nation to their 21st consecutive win.
With just one game remaining in his Kellenberg career, look for Cipolla to close out his scholastic career in fitting fashion. In the initial meetings with the Knights, as noted above, Xavier did do a fine job of slowing the running attack. However, Cipolla would provide excellent pass protection, giving Sluka all the time he needs en route to setting a career-high with 232 passing yards…On defense, he was a key part of a unit that limited the #3 rusher in the AA division, Dan Vittiburga, to his lowest output of 2018, as he gained just 59 yards on 16 carries.
Jalen Smith (Jr.); RB/WR – Cardinal Hayes Cardinals
A team that on paper was never supposed to get this far in the triple-A playoffs, the CJ O’Neill guided Cardinals has emerged as the Cinderella story of the NYCHSFL postseason following a pair of victories over opponents who had previously defeated them during the regular season.
Seeded 5th in the bracket with a 2-4 record, Cardinal Hayes would turn some heads and made a statement in the quarterfinal round when they transformed a 26-24 loss to Monsignor Farrell during week #4 into a 33-9 triumph two weeks ago…This past Friday, the Cardinals would do something that no other New York Catholic school had succeeded in doing since 2014; they went on the road to South Huntington to face top-seeded St. Anthony’s and walked away with a “w“ by a score of 26-25. This semifinal victory over the favored Friars came just four weeks removed from a 56-32 loss on the same field.
So, what might you ask has been the catalyst behind this unforeseen rally to the AAA finals? One possible answer has been the growth of a defense that went from giving up nearly 38 points per game early on (1-3) to a unit that has surrendered an average of just 17 during the most recent four-week stretch (3-1)…But, another logical and valid explanation could be found in the person of the 5’9, 165-pound junior, Smith.
The primary target of fellow junior/returning All-State QB, Sofian Massoud, in the aerial attack for much of the 2018 season, Smith entered the playoffs as the team’s leader in every major receiving category with 40 catches for 542 yards and seven touchdowns…And while he continued to be a steady presence in this aspect of the game (six snatches for 84 yards total in the postseason; 3 grabs for 36 yards specifically in the semifinals), what has really stood out about him of late has been his increased involvement within the Hayes rushing attack.
Carrying the pigskin no more than three times in any game during the regular season, prior to the playoffs, #23 had a career-high of just 41 yards running, which he established during that week #6 defeat at the hands of St. Anthony’s….But alas, in the past two weeks alone, Smith has had his number called 23 times for a total of 214 yards, including his first two TD runs (one each week)…Barely missing his first 100-yard effort in the quarterfinals when he finished with 98 yards on seven attempts, Smith would easily surpass the milestone in the semis, as he accumulated 116 yards on 16 hand-offs (7.3/touch).
With the Cardinals already leading 6-0 in the 1st quarter, Smith would showcase a level of field vision and elusiveness that you’d expect to only see from a polished running back, when he completed a Hayes drive in the last 3:00 of the opening quarter by traveling 21 yards on consecutive hand-offs to increase the lead to 12-0. The TD run itself, which came from a distance of 12-yards was highlighted by the 11th grader dragging multiple Friars defenders with him as he muscled his way across the goal line…Massoud added the 2pt conversion on a QB keeper to up the advantage to 14-0.
Now trailing 25-14 midway through the 3rd quarter, Smith would have a sizeable impact on the drive that awoke Hayes and put them back in the ballgame….Facing 3rd &4 on his own 14-yard-line, he would preserve the drive by being on the receiving end of a 17-yard screen pass…Moments later, with CH having moved to the opposing 30, he exploded for a 26-yard run to put the ball on the 4. Massoud did the rest, using a QB draw to cut the deficit to 25-20.
Smith would again rise to the occasion on what would end up being the game-winning drive at the onset of the 4th quarter. Still down 25-20 on the scoreboard, he would catch a pass out of the backfield on 3rd & 6 (on the STA 31) and power/spin his way inside the red zone…Three snaps later, Massoud connected with Michael Escobar on a 14-yard TD strike to put Cardinals in the lead for good.
2-for-2 thus far in gaining vengeance, if Cardinal Hayes wants to hoist the hardware for the second time in the past three years, they will need for the glass slipper to fit one last time as they square off with Archbishop Stepinac in the title game…When the defending league/state champion Crusaders last saw Smith, he carried the ball three times for 16 yards and caught five passes for an additional 42 yards in the 23-20 loss in the regular season finale…But, as is clearly evident, there is no longer the same Cardinal Hayes program and it most certainly is not the same [Jalen] Smith. So, AS best take nothing for granted!
Malik Grant (Sr.); RB – Archbishop Stepinac Crusaders
When previewing last weekend’s semifinal match-ups, we made it a point to mention that the absence of the senior running back from the Crusader line-up during the first meeting with Iona Prep was undeniably a game-changer…Hampered by injuries for much of the first half of the 2018 season, Grant would carry the ball just twice for a gain of eight yards in the 36-34 overtime loss on September 15th.
What we did not realize (but perhaps should have because of his postseason reputation) is the extent to which the 5’10, 190-pounder from the Bronx would take over the game this past Saturday….A performance so electrifying, mind-blowing, and unprecedented, to call it a “career day” would be to fail to do it the justice that it warrants…Young Mr. Grant did not simply post a new personal-best for rushing yards; he created a standard and landmark that may never be approached, let alone equaled or surpassed by another NYCHSFL student-athlete.
Exhibiting the caliber of leadership that you’d expect and demand to see out of a senior hungry to extend his scholastic career, Grant would have the kind of game that your grandkids will tell their grandkids about half a century from now.
Carrying the ball 32 times (personal high), Grant would erupt for 405 yards (12.7/touch) and score three touchdowns (his first career 3 TD game) in sending the Crusaders to title weekend for the fifth straight year, following their 37-26 road victory over the Gaels….The inaugural member of the 400-yard club in the NYCHSFL, Grant did not just knock IP out of the 2018 postseason, he also removed one of their alumni from the annals of history, as his superhuman display shattered the previous record of 393 set by Jeffrey Mack in 2008.
His team holding a 10-7 edge at the time, Grant made the first of his previously acknowledged three pilgrimages to the promised land with approximately 6:00 remaining in the 1st half, when he answered an Iona Prep touchdown by rocketing 65-yards up the middle on the first play of Stepinac’s ensuing position to make the score 16-7….Grant would add an additional two points to his team’s tally just before the intermission (13.8 ticks remaining) when following the second TD hook-up of the afternoon between senior WR Shawn Harris and junior signal caller, Joey Carino, he would find himself on the receiving end of a very unusual (pushed back due to penalties) 18-yard two-point conversion pass to make the score 24-7.
The Crusader advantage trimmed to 24-14, the memories of Iona Prep rallying from a 14-point deficit in the 4th quarter of the first meeting would not be lost on Grant….Powerless to stop the momentum shift in September, he would show no mercy and take no chances last Saturday, punching in his second touchdown of the game on a 9-yard run with 3:33 remaining in the 3rd quarter to make the score 30-14.
Unable to shake or break the spirits of the second-seeded Gaels for much of the day, it would be fitting that it was Grant who inflicted the death blow, as his third and final touchdown came with 8:20 remaining in regulation when on a 3rd & 4 inside the IP 5-yard line, he battled his way into the end zone to make the score 37-20.
Grant, who dating back to last season’s state title victory over Canisius, has now rushed for 130, 170, and 405 yards (as well as six collective touchdowns) respectively in his last three playoff contests, should anticipate another heavy workload on November 17th….Rushing for 79 yards on 14 carries (his only sub-100 game since the end of September), but kept off the scoreboard in Stepinac’s 23-20 win over Cardinal Hayes in week #8, if one thing is guaranteed, it is that #4 in the red, white, and blue jersey is not going down (literally or figuratively) without a heck of a fight.
By virtue of Grant’s 400+ yard day in the semifinals, he will step onto Mitchel Field as the current #1 ranked rusher in all of the NYCHSFL. His 1,284 yards gives him a +48 lead over Kellenberg’s [Jordan] Delucia…So, with both studs playing for divisional crowns this weekend, the rushing race should make for an intriguing sidebar.