2023 CHSAA State Title Game Preview

Cardinal Hayes (11-2; NYCHSFL) vs. St. Francis (5-5; Monsignor Martin)

When: Saturday December 2nd, 2023 @2pm

Where: Wien Stadium/Kraft Field on the Campus of Columbia University (533 W 218th St, New York, NY 10034)

Watch: LocalLive

Players to Watch (Cardinal Hayes)

*Rich Belin (Jr; QB)—The “Showstopper” and/or dual-threat wizard for the Cardinals, the three-year varsity team member (second full season taking the snaps) is a surefire All-State selection in 2023, as he has accumulated over 4,000 yards (2,938 in the air; 1274 on the ground) and 46 touchdowns (28 passing, 18 running) in his second full season as the conductor of the offense!….

*Kenneth Antoine (Sr; RB)—The top rusher this fall in the NYCHSFL triple-A division, Antoine will look to close out a decorated scholastic career by being the one to deliver the first state crown to the Cardinals…Needing just 75 yards on the ground this weekend to reach the 1,500 milestone for the year (1,425 + 16 touchdowns on 182 carries), Antoine plays more ferocious than his 190-pound frame might suggest; and when he gets into open field, he is usually gone in the blink of an eye!!  

*Cleveland Charlton (Sr; WR)—The match-up nightmare for every defensive backfield he has played against this season, the 6’5 Bronx resident is a modern-day Megatron in that he has the acceleration and hands to accompany his measurables…Sweeping every major pass-catching category among Hayes personnel this fall, he enters his last hurrah having hauled in 39 balls for 1,057 yards, and 11 touchdowns….

*Eli Garcia (Sr; WR)—Adding to the depth of the C.H. receiving corps is fellow senior, Garcia, who has thrived in the slot in 2023, finishing just below Charlton with 37 grabs (for 792 yards, 5 touchdowns)…

*Reid Jones (Jr; WR)—The “third Musketeer” for the explosive aerial strike, Jones is fresh off of being named a Metro Catholic Player of the Year recipient after tallying a career-best 165 yards (5 grabs, 1 TD) on Thanksgiving in the annual Turkey Bowl match-up with MSMA…Quiet during the postseason, if his performance last Thursday has awoken the beast, then it could be a long day for the Red Raider secondary as Jones, much like Charlton, is a definitive deep/homerun threat, as he is averaging 21.4 yards per snatch to boast a stat line that reads as follows: 32 receptions for 684 yards, and 7 TDs!! 

*Abdoul Bah (Sr; LB)—Approaching the century mark in stops this season (94), Bah does not discriminate in whom he torments, as he is just as content terrorizing quarterbacks (2 sacks, 1 pick-6 this past Thursday) as he is making life miserable for opposing running backs (7 TFLs)….With four double-digit tackles efforts this year (eight outings with 5 or more), anticipate seeing the #11 jersey flying all over the gridiron!  His name is going to be called plenty!

*Ayden Smartt (Jr; LB)—Another Cardinal LB that is quickly approaching registering a C-Note this fall, six of Smartt’s 90 tackles this year have resulted in negative yardage!

*Aldrick Boakye (Sr; LB)—An absolute difference-maker since returning to the line-up after missing time at the early part of the year, in only six appearances as a senior, the hometown hero has logged 42 stops and 6 tackles for a loss…Had he been afforded the privilege of playing a full swan song, there is no telling how mind-blowing his numbers would be entering his last day as a Cardinal!

*Giovanni Downer (Sr.; LB)—Rounding out the LB group is another stud that was hampered by injuries, but has come on strong and been a leader down the homestretch….On six separate occasions, he recorded 5 or more stops, including a season-high of 10 in the AAA finale…All in all, he has accrued 48 tackles, including a trifecta of hits for negative outcomes!

*Blake Belin (Jr.; DL)—The Defensive MVP of the Triple-A title contest, the 280-pounder has DT size, but moves like an End, which has enabled him to wreak major havoc in all areas, as he enters this Saturday as the team-leader in both sacks (7) and TFLs (11)…Get accustomed to watching big #96 invading the backfield, because it is a habitual custom for the likely future power-5 conference student-athlete….Belin has 51 total tackles in 2023!

*Kahmari Valentine (Jr.; DT)—The man in the middle of the DL as part of the 3-4 scheme played by Hayes, tipping the scales at 315 pounds, Valentine plugs every hole imaginable and is quite adept at stopping you on impact in the backfield, as 8 of his 59 stops this season have resulted in minus yardage!  He tied his season-best of 2 TFLs during Championship Saturday on November 18th!

*Tyrone Smith (Jr.; Strong Safety)—One of two consummate ballhawks along the last line of “D”, the 11th grader from Brooklyn has registered an interception in three of his past four outings to give him a Hayes-best 5 on the season….His instincts putting him in the right place at the right time, he also has recovered 3 fumbles this season to give him a direct hand in 8 turnover creating scenarios….As a tackler, he has been steady, racking up 61 stops (2 TFLs)!

*Corey Rock (Sr.; CB)—Trailing only Smith on the roster for interceptions, the 6’1, 172-pound senior has 3 takeaways in 2023 to go along with 50 stops (3 TFLs)

*Ray Boyd (Sr.; FS)—-Not your traditional centerfielder that focuses only on pass coverage, Boyd is a bona fide thumper that takes pride in his ability to lay hats on people….3rd on the Team with 68 total tackles as a senior, the Harlem resident has shown an ability to come with the blitz as he has banked a pair of sacks!

Players to Watch (St. Francis)

*Landon Welka (Jr.; QB)—Coming into his junior season expected to contribute more on the back end of pass attempts as opposed to the front, the WR turned QB convert has thrived in his first year taking the snaps for the Red Raiders, as he has connected on half of his throw attempts (85-of-168, for 1,266 yards and 13 touchdowns)…A pure athletic, the Boston, NY resident added an additional 202 yards and 5 scores on 53 keepers!!!…He is fresh off of rushing for season-bests of 53 yards and 2 TDs (8 carries) in the Monsignor Title game dub over Canisius!

*Terrence Pendergrass (Sr.; RB/LB)—An impact player on both sides of the line of scrimmage, the senior from Buffalo is the top option out of the backfield for St. Francis, as he followed up a 680-yard/12TD campaign as a junior by getting even stronger in his final year HS, as demonstrated by the 1,091 yards and 18 touchdowns he was recorded this fall (204 carries)…Surpassing the century mark in six of nine appearances this season, #1 is number 1 when it comes to making things happen on land….Defensively, he a trusted linebacker, racking up 26 stops (4 TFLs), as well as an INT, two forced fumbles! To the surprise of no one, he was named as the MMHSAA Player of the Year in his ironman exploits!….Note: He did not participate in the MMHSAA Championship, so his status is up in the air at the time of publication!

*Jimmy Valentine (So.; RB/LB)—Another two-way performer at the skill positions, we ae looking at Valentine as a bit of a wildcard as his overall 2023 numbers (264 yards and 2 touchdowns on 52 carries) do not blow you away on sight.  But what he does have working for him is that he steps on the field with a lot of momentum in his corner, as he just weeks removed from his finest display of the year, as he gained 87 yards on 13 carries in the MM finale!….Like Pendergrass, when he is not busy chewing up yards on “O”, Valentine finds a way to be an asset on defense too, as he 4 of his 14 cumulative tackles as a super sophomore resulted in a loss of yardage! 

*Johann Garces Vasquez (Jr.; RB)—With there being some questions about the availability of Pendergrass, the “next man up” philosophy is in full effect, which means that it would not surprise us in the least to see the 11th grader from Canada step to the plate and assume a much larger role….Like Valentine, Vasquez’s seasonal sums are modest on paper (176 yards and 3 touchdowns on 38 hand-offs), but it was his most recent body of work (team-high 89 yards and 1 score on 16 attempts) in the regional/MM ‘ship that had us intrigued! 

*Jeremiah Neely (Sr.; WR/DB)—Continuing the trend of taking few, if any, snaps off is the two-way athlete hailing from Cheektowaga [Neely]….Without question the #1 target in the sky attack for the Red Raiders, he posted team-highs across the board, amassing 28 receptions for 489 yards and 9 touchdown hauls…Defensively, he has been responsible for 36 tackles and an INT in his swan song!

*Kynan Ulanga (Sr.; WR/DB)—Known most his prowess on the defensive side of the ball as a lockdown defensive back, per his twitter, he is regarded as the #11 CB in the Empire State and certainly seems to have the resume to prove that he deserves that respect…Credited with 40 tackles, 2 INTs, and a pair of pass break-ups, the 5’11, 180-pounder only allowed one ball (5 thrown in his direction) to be caught during the Monsignor Martin title game….Ulanga should not be slept on as an offensive weapon either, as finished 2nd on the squad with 18 snatches for 193 yards and 3 TD grabs!

*Marcus Harrison (Sr.; LT)—A bulldozer, a mountain, an absolute standout….There is no shortage of complimentary tags you can attach to the future Georgia Bulldog as the 6’8, 330-pounder will be the most highly touted person on either sideline, as he currently holds composite 4-star/#346 overall national prospect status on 247Sports!!….His ability to dictate terms on the edge of the running game, while also keeping his quarterback upright against a fierce Cardinal pass-rush could be a deciding factor!….Harrison has not been asked to do much on defense this season; but given the stakes of his final outing as a Red Raider, we would not fault Coach Smith if he pulled out all the tricks and asked the behemoth to try to influence the game on both sides of the trenches!!

*Ethan Metro (Sr.; LB/DE)—The leading hitter for Red Raider Nation this fall, the senior in the #18 jersey brings the heat on every snap, which he showcased when he amassed 67 tackles (7 TFLs) and 8 QB hurries (#1 on the team) over the course of a banner campaign that landed him on the All-MMHSAA Defensive Team….Metro’s 10-tackle resume in his last outing marked the third occasion this year where he reached double-digits (7 games of 5 or more stops)…In addition to making the passer uncomfortable by applying pressure, his 3 pass break-ups suggest that he is pretty good at getting his hands up and knocking down throws at the line!

*Brady Greenough (Sr.; LB)—-Ranked in the top-3 on the roster in sacks (1st with 4), total tackles (T-2nd with 57), and TFLs (t-2nd with 7), Greenough is another All-Monsignor Martin selection as the 6’1, 205-pound MIKE LB has a nose for the ball and pursues with ease, as demonstrated by registering 5 or more stops in 7 of his 10 appearances this fall!

*Shane Giesser (Sr. DE)—Making noise in last year’s State title contest (returned a botch punt attempt to the opposing 29), the 6’4, 245-pound Kenmore resident is sure to be equally busy/involved again 2023….The high-man on the totem pole in terms of TFLs, 8 of the 12th grader’s 36 tackles yielded minus yardage….A man that haunts opposing QBs, his sack and/or hurry totals of 3 and 5 respectively both rank 2nd among STF personnel!

*Theodore “Teddy” Roberts (Sr.; LB)—Further bolstering the LBs will be yet another All-League/Monsignor Martin honoree in the person of the 205-pounder from Dunkirk….Firing out of the gate on all cylinders with 36 tackles in his first four games of 2023, Roberts has slowed down a bit, but is still near the top of the leaderboard, as his 57 stops has him deadlocked with Greenough in the #2 position….His 4 TFLs has him in a tie for 5t  on the squad; and he has a pair of hands (1 INT with a 44-yard return) to complete the package!

*Connor Miller (Sr.; LB)—Credited with 49 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and a pair of fumble recoveries, the depth at the linebacker spot never seems to end in Hamburg thanks to individuals such as the gem in the #22 shirt!…He missed multiple games this season or else he might be challenging for the top spot in many of these categories!

*Damone Allen (Jr.; DB)—With the Hayes passing attack quite prolific, St. Francis is going to need to get a big game out of all of their defensive backs…Luckily for the Raiders, this is an area of immense strength as the 11th grader joins some of the aforementioned names in patrolling the no fly zone!!!….Registering 1 interception this season, Allen’s influence is most pronounced when you consider that he has posted a team-best of 9 pass break-ups this season!….He is not shy about playing the run either, as he has amassed 36 tackles thus far!


A tale of two programs that are each still in pursuit of their first CHSAA State crowns, there has been heartbreak along the way in both corners!

Last season, leading 20-0 at the start of the 4th quarter, St. Francis had to watch the pieces crumble, as St. Anthony’s was able to strike for 27 unanswered points (including the eventual game-winner with 3:56 remaining in regulation) to drop the Red Raiders to 0-4 in state finals contests!!!

For Cardinal Hayes (0-2 in previous appearances in 2016 and 2019), 2019 seemed to be the year that they were destined to hoist the hardware, as they enjoyed a 24-10 advantage with just 5:00 to go in the 4th quarter before Canisius stormed back to score a pair of touchdowns (+ a 2pt conversion) to steal the ring, 25-24….

A bout that has the makings of a firefight, the host Cardinals roll in on a six-game winning streak and are averaging 42.5 points this season, while their visitors from Buffalo have strung together three consecutive wins and boast an average of 35.2 points per outing despite playing a nationally competitive schedule filled with multiple out-of-state opponents!!

Balanced play-calling having been established and/or instituted by each coaching staff, there is no easy solution to solving/shutting down either offense as one look at the rosters conveys that there are homerun hitters from top to bottom…

Hayes is of course blessed/powered by the backfield combination of junior QB, Rich Belin, and senior RB, Kenneth Antoine, who combined to account for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in the postseason, highlighted by a 2TD effort in the finals by the latter that earned Antoine Offensive MVP honors….Belin, the true dual-threat, has also been deadly with his arm, connecting on 29-43 pass attempts for an additional 593 yards (3 TD tosses) during the AAA playoffs!!

Adding to the “dynamite” housed on Grand Concourse are the WR trio of Cleveland Charlton (11 for 304, 2 TDs), Eli Garcia (9 for 124), and Reid Jones (2 for 17), who united to haul in 22 receptions for 445 yards during their school’s Cinderella (#5 seed) trek to the top of the Metro Catholic mountain!….A sleeper 4th option at WR will be junior, Ken-G Burnham, who came on strong during the postseason, recording 5 of his 14 total grabs this season during the quarter and semifinal rounds!  

Countering with their own highly efficient/potent arsenal will be the Red & White contingent from Lake Shore Road, who despite the absence of decorated senior running back, Terrence Pendergrass, were still able to chew up 308 yards and 3 scores (51 carries) to come away with a 1pt victory (21-20) en route to seizing the Monsignor Martin three-peat over Canisius….

While inside sources tell us that Pendergrass (76 yards and 1 touchdown on 11 hand-offs in the 2022 State title appearance) will be in uniform and ready to roll on Saturday, even if he was a “no show”, we’d still feel rather confident about the Raiders abilities to move the ball on land, as the likes of Johann Garces Vasquez (89 yards on 16 carries, 1 TD), Jimmy Valentine (87 yards on 13 attempts), Robert Kendall Jr. (43 yards on 7 hand-offs), and Junior QB, Landon Welka (53 yards and a pair of scores on 8 keeps) more than filled the void….

After hitting on over 50% of his throws this season for 1,266 yards and 13 touchdowns, Welka did struggle a bit in the air during the MMHSAA finale, going just 2-for-6 (1 INT); so it need not be said that the staff will be hoping/anticipating a bounce back effort in this regard….And he absolutely has the partners to bring about a 180-degree reversal of fortune as Jeremiah Neely and Kynan Ulanga, have been a dutiful duo during the entirety of the fall, making 46 snatches for 682 yards and 12 touchdowns!

While not showing up in the box score, Coach [Jerome] Smith sleeps well at night knowing that he has potentially the biggest (literally and figuratively) game-changer on the field in the person of 6’8, 330-pound monster LT, Marcus Harrison, who is on his way to Athens, GA to play for the two-time defending National Champion UGA Bulldogs and will be a major deterrent to the aggressive/downhill style in which the Hayes “D” likes to incorporate!….Fellow senior, Felix Cedeno, adds more muscle/toughness to the OL, as he joined his heralded teammate as an All-MMHSAA selection in 2023!! 

An embarrassment of riches among the front-7 representing the core/nucleus of the defensive units on both sidelines, the effort/contributions of the DL/LBs will go a long way towards determining a victor.

Even though Welka is more than capable of slinging the rock, our guess is that STF will opt to play to their strength and try to win a ground war, which means that the onus will be on Abdoul Bah (27 tackles, 1 TFL in the playoffs), Ayden Smartt (22 postseason stops), Giovanni Downer (25 tackles, 1 TFL), Aldrich Boakye (20 stops, 3 tackles for loss in the playoffs), Kahmari Valentine (12 stops, 2 TFLs during the postseason), and Blake Belin (14 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 induced safety in the NYCHSFL title game) to all rise to the occasion and fly into the backfield!!!

Reflecting and growing from having garnered experience in this game in 2022, Pendergrass (5 tackles in the loss to STA) will be joined by fellow State title game vets—Teddy Roberts (9 stops), Brady Greenough (6 tackles), Shane Giesser (4 stops, 1 TFL, 1 fumble recovery), Ethan Metro (2 tackles, 1 stop for negative yardage), and Connor Miller (1 tackle) in providing leadership and poise….Harrison (2 stops) and Michael Harris (3 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack in the MM finals) will also be in the mix to provide some boom on the DL!

[Kynan] Ulanga (5 tackles, 1 fumble recovery in the ‘22 State contest), Neely (3 stops, 1 TFL, 1 sack), and Damone Allen (1 stop, 3 pass defenses in the MM title game) will have their hands full in the secondary, but are up to the task!….Kion Ulanga (22 tackles, 5 PDs this season) is a wildcard/sleeper on “D”!

Ballhawks—Tyrone Smith (15 tackles, 2 INTs in the playoffs) & Corey Rock (16 stops, 1 pick in the postseason) are joined by bruising safety, Ray Boyd (17 postseason stops), in patrolling the last line of defense for the Cardinals!