By Matt Diano
After unsuccessful bids in 2016 and 2019, the Cardinals of Cardinal Hayes High School can finally and proudly call themselves STATE CHAMPIONS!!!
The rags to riches Cinderella story (2-8 last season; seeded 5th in the 2023 NYCHSFL AAA playoffs) saw its final chapter punctuated with an exclamation point earlier today on the campus of Columbia University as the CJ O’Neil mentored band of brothers emerged with a 40-22 triumph over Monsignor Martin titlist, St. Francis (Hamburg)!!!.
The offense humming with the same sweet melody that it had at every previous stage of the fall campaign (came in averaging 39.2/per outing), the Cardinal & Gold were able to blow open a then 7-6 advantage in the 1st quarter by peeling off 26 unanswered points during the midst of the next 21 minutes to relish as large as a 33-6 cushion (in the 3rd quarter) before the visiting Red Raiders rallied late to make the verdict closer on paper than it appeared to be in real time on the field!!
Getting the party started on the first of three successful 1st half drives it was senior, Mohamed Traore, doing the honors of drawing initial blood when he followed up a 45-yard completion from Rich Belin to Reid Jones (ball to the 14) by taking the pigskin to the house from a distance of 9-yards out a few snaps later to culminate the opening possession of the contest for C.H and give them the early 7-0 lead with 6:33 remaining in the opening stanza!…Just his second TD trek of the year, Traore went the entire regular season and postseason without finding paydirt, but has notched one TD apiece in both Turkey Bowl and CHSAA title outings!
Aided by multiple personal foul penalties, the Red Raiders would respond on their ensuing opportunity, as it was senior RB, Robert Kendall Jr., plunging across the goal line on a 2-yarder to cut the deficit to 7-6 (fake PAT + pass attempt fell incomplete)…
Any sigh of relief that STF legendary Head Coach, Jerome Smith, was able to joy would prove to be short-lived though, as just 28 seconds later (2:18 to go in 1Q), it was Belin accounting for the first of his trio of touchdown contributions (to raise his 2023 grand sum to 49; 30 passing, 19 rushing)) when he hurled a 55-yard, on-the-money strike to Cleveland Charlton for their 12th TD hook-up this to increase the cushion to 13-6 (2pt pass try to Eli Garcia was no good)…One play prior to the TD, it was a 25-yard grab by Garcia that got momentum rolling…
A combination sack courtesy of Abdoul Bah & Giovanni Downer on 3rd down forced St. Francis to punt the ball away with just over 6:00 to go before halftime, thus enabling Belin to make the most of a short field (inherited possession on the opposing 45) when after a series of productive runs from himself and senior RB, Kenneth Antoine, he rounded out the scoring on a 1yrd QB keeper (3:50 showing on the clock) to send the Bronx contingent into the locker room up 20-6!!
Getting the “prolate spheroid” to commence the 2nd Half, as was the case earlier, it was instant gratification for the Hayesmen as they needed just 1:56 to parade 63 yards down field, with the signature moment being a 6-yard haul by Jones (8th TD catch of the fall) to further pull away, 27-6….Belin had two monster runs prior, including a 20-yard 4th &8 pick up that sustained the march!
Forcing a turnover on downs on their own 20 when Zaydan Jeffrey played lockdown coverage and prevented Kynan Ulanga from coming down with the ball in bounds on 4th down, it was Antoine cashing in shortly thereafter when on the second snap after the TOD, he bolted 85 yards up the gut for the first of what would be a pair of electrifying touchdown expeditions in the 3rd/4th quarters (PAT was blocked by Red Raider sophomore Safety, Matthew Zielinski) with 5:54 remaining in the 3rd quarter to cap off the aforementioned consecutive points streak!
Never a squad that will hang their heads and accept defeat, to the credit of the Red Raider student-athletes (especially senior RB, Terrence Pendergrass), St. Francis demonstrated tremendous heart and pride in the latter part of the 3rd/early 4th quarters, as after being on the back end of a perfectly executed wheel route to move the ball inside the Hayes’ Red Zone, Pendergrass scored his 19th ground touchdown of his swan song in the last :06 of the 3rd quarter to cut the deficit to 33-14 (Landon Welka pass to TE, William Hanson, for the 2-pointer)!
They drew even closer (33-22) when after getting a stop on “D”, Welka found Pendergrass on a 40-yard screen pass to the promised land (2pt run by Pendergrass) in the last 8:00 (7:25) of the 4th!!
But alas, unlike the 2022 version of this rivalry that witnessed St. Anthony’s claw back from a 20-0 3rd quarter hole, Antoine made certain that there would be no crazy 11th hour comeback as the final “6” of his decorated scholastic career came in the form of a 23-yard explosion up the middle with 2:44 to issue the proverbial death blow!!!….Keeping the ball on land and just trying to exhaust clock, Antoine (33-yarder) and Belin (20-yarder) each had complementary rushes that set the table for the “nail in the coffin”!
With no shortage of worthy candidates, MVP distinction would be bestowed upon Antoine (Offensive) & junior DL extraordinaire, Kahmari Valentine!
By virtue of Hayes’ victory, the NYCHSFL improved to 6-3 overall in the cross-regional rivalry, as Metro has now won the past three showdowns (2021-Iona Prep; 2022- St. Anthony; 2023-Cardinal Hayes)…Unfortunately, it was the Red Raiders on the short end of the stick on all three of these occasions, as today’s loss dropped them to 0-5 all-time in CHSAA title meetings!