CINDERELLA’S SLIPPER FITS!!!!….CARDINAL HAYES ARISES FROM THE #5 SEED TO SEIZE THE TOP PRIZE!!
In what may go down as the game of the year (anywhere on planet Earth), every second and then some was required to determine a victor as the hometown favorites from the Bronx [Cardinal Hayes] were able to hang on for a dramatic 30-29 victory over the second-seeded Gaels of Iona Prep, to earn the Triple-A title and lower the curtain on NYCHSFL Championship Saturday 2023!!!
As evenly-matched a collision of two juggernauts as we have seen in quite some time, Hayes would find themselves down 29-23 with 2:23 remaining regulation; but then Rich Belin put on the cape and mask and did what true superheroes do!!!
Marching his squad 80-yards down field in just over 80 seconds (1:23 to be precise), the 2.5-year incumbent field general from the Harlem inflicted all of the damage necessary with his arm, as he’d connect on 4-for-5 throw attempts to four different targets (Reid Jones, Eli Garcia, Abdoul Bah, and Cleveland Charlton), with the last of the quartet being the biggest completion thus far of his scholastic career, as pitted with a 3rd &10 predicament, he was able to keep his composure, evaded a pass-rusher, and then found the 6’5 skyscraper [Charlton] on a 38-yard homerun ball on the end line of the end zone for what proved to be the winning sequence as the clock hit 1:00 to go in the 4th!!
Never ones to go down without a fight, Iona Prep, who was making their third consecutive appearance in the AAA finale (split previous outings, with a win over Monsignor Farrell in 2021 and a loss to St. Anthony’s last November), would go out on their proverbial shield, as brilliant quarterbacking from their own 11th grade signal caller, Joseph Gaston, had them in position to steal the game at the buzzer!!!!
Taking what the C.H. defense would give him for the majority of the last-ditch attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, it was a 27-yard hook-up to Crew Davis that especially made things interesting down the stretch as it moved the ball to the opposing 35 and paved the way for All-State place-kicker, Sam Bisesi to have a crack at not one, BUT TWO field goal attempts….
After initially missing a 47-yarder short, two infractions totaling 15 yards gave the Gaels a second crack at the crown…But the prayers of the Hayes faithful must have been heard, as the boot off of an untimed down would have the distance but drifted wide!!!
A fitting conclusion (two teams leaving everything in their souls out on the field of Coffey Field), the 1pt margin very much told the story of just how back-and-forth the “main event” was from beginning to end!
Exchanging touchdowns on each of their first possessions of the evening, Hayes drew first blood when after Charlton hauled in a 42-yard grab to advance the ball from his own 48 to the enemy 11, it was senior tailback extraordinaire, Kenneth Antoine, doing the rest, as he sprinted up the middle, was contacted at the goal line, but refused to be denied, as he punched in the first of his two TDs run from a distance of 10 yards to give the CJ O’Neill coached machine the 7-0 lead 2:32 into the 1st quarter!!
Taking their turn with the pigskin, the gents from New Rochelle issued a immediate response in the form of a 1-yard TD run by sophomore, Kadin Huling, who banged his way in from the doorstep after it was a 26-yard grab by Steven Dowdy Jr., and a 21-yard trek on the ground from Kyseem Springer, that put him in that spot!
After two Hayes punts sandwiched around a turnover on downs from IP (run stuff by Ayden Smartt on 4th &1 with 1:30 to go in the 1st quarter) it looked as if Iona Prep might be mounting a drive to surge in front as Dowdy was on the back end of a significant gainer on 3rd &4 to cross midfield…But alas, junior CB, Tyrone Smith, had different plans, as the 5’11, 166-pounder hailing from Brooklyn would read Gaston’s eyes and jump in front of a pass attempt, intercepting the ball on his 39 and then turning on the jets for the 61-yard pick-6 to instead give the Cardinals the 14-7 edge with 8:53 to go before halftime!!
After the “D” forced a punt on Iona Prep’s next series, Hayes had the opportunity to create some separation, as a 3rd &7 conversion by Belin (13-yard keeper), complemented by a pass interference call created by Charlton put the ball on the opposition…..Belin called on his own number on another scramble and was well on his way to the “6” before IP safety, Adande Nartey was able to strip the pigskin and Frank Miceli pounced on it to take over on their own 2 line yard in the last 2:04 of the opening 24-minute saga!!
A foreshadowing of their eventual demise, just as was true of the final drive of the ball-game, IP was haunted by an inability to score points late in either half, as a 21-yard end around by Dowdy Jr, as well as respective 10 and 22-yard completions to Dylan Iorgoveanu & Rocco Presto, put the Gaels just outside the red zone (Hayes 26) with :09 on the board….
The promising opportunity could not be culminated through, as it was the other member of the Belin family tree, Blake, wrapping up Gaston for a sack on the last snap of the 2nd quarter!!!…Equal kudos belonged to Kahmari Valentine, who ripped Gaston down for a 4-yard TFL earlier in the drive to temporarily halt momentum as the Cardinal & Red jogged to the locker room enjoying the 14-7 lead!
Reminiscent and/or déjà vu like, identical to how the 1st quarter commences, so too did the 3rd, as this time, it was Iona Prep making the most of their inceptive drive in the 3Q, as a kickoff return by Nartey (to the C.H. 41) was cashed on the first play from scrimmage when Gaston followed his blockers, discovered the hole, and despite being hit by defenders, maintained his feet to bolt 41-yards to the house to again knot the game at 14-14 just 24 ticks into the third stanza!
The deadlock was short-lived as suggested above, as O’Neill channeled his inner-Ron “Riverboat Gambler” Rivera on 4th &10 from his own 40, he gave [Rich] Belin the green light on a fake punt + run, which the future FBS student-athlete was able to turn into a 21-yard run to cross into Gael territory (39)….This was one of a pair of 4th down conversions where Belin’s legs were lethal, as later in the series, he extended possession by diving at the chains to gain 6 yards on a 4th & 5 to move the ball to the 32…Two snaps later, Antoine made a deposit in the bank, as he was met in the backfield by an IP defender, but was able to shake if off, quickly find daylight and then cruise 27 yards uninterrupted to regain the one-score cushion (21-14) with 3:34 remaining in the 3rd Quarter!
The trading of touchdowns endured on Iona Prep’s second possession of the half, as Dowdy (who warranted MVP considering had his school prevailed) almost single-handedly willed the Maroon & Gold to yet another tie, as it was the #8 shirt returning the ensuing kickoff to his own 46 and then hauling in catches of 16 (shovel pass) and 29 yards (on 4th &8) to get the Gaels to the C.H. 1-yard line….Back-up QB, Julian Guzman, then afforded him the privilege of finishing with he started, as he took another shovel dump across the goal line on the last play of quarter #3 to send us to the 4th with a 21-21 barn-burner!
Coming right back over the top on their next chance, a 37-yard slant to Charlton beamed the ball from the Cardinals 32 to the Gaels’ 31, but for the second time of the night, the fumble bug bit Belin, as he lost control while laying out at the pylon, thus making it possible for Nartey to scoop it up on his own 1 with 9:11 remaining in regulation…
But as fortune and blood lines would have it, one the subsequent snap from scrimmage, it was BIG BLAKE bailing out his sibling, as he blew up Dowdy on a hand-off in the end zone to generate the 2pt safety to restore the upper-hand to the “Grand Concourse contingent, 23-21 (9:09 on the clock)…
Setting the stage for the 11th hour valor, Iona Prep took their first and only lead of the night when it was a 5-yard TD rush by Huling (2nd of the game) followed by a fake PAT + pass (Guzman to Declan McCauley) that gave us our aforementioned 29-23 scenario….While Huling may have been the one to get his name in the box score, Dowdy was the heartbeat of the go-ahead series, as previously they fed him like a man who had not eaten in days, with connections of 23, 24, and 6 yards vaulting IP across the 50 and onto the Hayes 31….A 1st down conversion by Gaston on 3rd &4, not to mention a 16-yard reception by Nathaniel Shillingford (advanced the ball to the 5) were of great importance!
Morphing from a program like went from 2-8 in 2022 to 10-2 (avenged both of their regular season losses in the playoffs), the Cardinals are not done yet as they will go in search of the school’s first CHSAA State title on the gridiron when they clash with Monsignor Martin champs, St Francis, on a date still to be determined….
But before worrying about state gold, in the more immediate future is what now officially an ALL-CHAMPION Turkey Bowl between then and AA-2 royalty, Mount St. Michael Academy, on Thanksgiving!