By Matt Diano
For every coach that has ever preached to their team that seed is just a number, Cardinal Hayes is the program for you…Entering the postseason 4th (the lowest seed among today’s finalists) out of six teams in the triple-A division, Head Coach CJ O’Neil’s Cardinals shocked the Empire State football world the past two weekends, knocking off previously unbeaten/top-seeded Iona Prep, 45-34, in the semifinals and then following it up with a statement-making 25-7 victory this afternoon over #2 Archbishop Stepinac…The win ended the Crusaders’ bid for a three-straight league crown.
Getting off to a rather dubious start, the boys from the Bronx fell into an initial 7-0 hole when they fumbled inside enemy territory on their first series of the game and then allowed a 66-yard TD run a few snaps later to Stepinac junior tailback, Kyle Benjamin…This would be the only blemish on an otherwise outstanding effort on both sides of the ball for Hayes.
Immediately issuing a response to the Stepinac touchdown on their next possession, Hayes utilized a balanced game plan, chewing up yards via air and land before sophomore fullback, Zachary Mitchell, punched in his sixth rushing touchdown of 2019 from a distance of eight yards out to square the score at 7 apiece halfway through the opening quarter.
Still deadlocked at 7, our “Cinderellas” in Cardinal & Gold really seized the momentum late in the first half, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the last 3:20 of the 2nd quarter to carry the 19-7 edge into the break…The first of the two touchdowns came on a 2nd & 13 pass attempt, as sophomore field general, Henry Belin, teamed up with his favorite target, Kuno Mendez (top-3 in New York State for receiving yardage and TD grabs), on a 34-yard connection to make the score 13-7 with 2:33 to play in the quarter…Less then 1:00 later, after inducing a punt, it was senior RB, Jalen Smith’s turn to shine, as he took the first snap of the drive to the outside and then cut back up field, out-running all would-be defenders to the tune of a 70-yard sprint to the house.
Stepinac appeared well on their way towards cutting into the deficit in the last 45 seconds of the half, as they had 1st & goal inside the Hayes’ 10…However, the combination of penalties and clutch defensive plays would cease the drive…On 4th down, it was Na’Sir Douglas, emerging with the biggest contribution to the stand, breaking up a pass attempt to create the turnover on downs.
The Cardinals’ “D”, which consistently was in the face of Stepinac signal caller, Joey Carino (7-for-22, 108 yards, proved to be just impenetrable in the final 24 minutes of regulation…Led by Defensive MVP, Nicholas Burgess (7 tackles, 4 TFL, 4 sacks), Charles Miracle Oguamanam (5 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 sacks), and Douglas (4 pass break-ups), Hayes never allowed the usually immensely potent Crusaders’ attack to gain any semblance of comfort or rhythm.
Coach CJ O’Neil with Defensive MVP Nicholas Burgess
Junior DL, Shawn Ward, also got in the suffocating mix, racking up back-to-back sacks to force a punt in the last half minute of the 3rd quarter…The excellent starting field position his stellar performance yielded would be rewarded four minutes later, when Hayes put the nail in the coffin on a 12-yard TD run by Tafari Blackstock to make the score 25-7 with 8:50 still to be contested…Blackstock also had a 23-yard gain early in the series to advance the ball into the red zone.
Stepinac would have one last chance to try to reverse their fortunes, but a sack by Burgess (his 4th of the day) ended the drive, allowing the Cardinals to exhaust the remainder of the clock on the ground.
Belin, who concluded the day with a stat line that read 12-for-18 for 205 yards, was named the Offensive MVP…Smith topped all rushers with 125 yards + the one TD on 13 carries.
Cardinal Hayes now advances to the AAA State title game where they will play the Monsignor Martin champion on November 23rd.