There’s a special bond among most Xavier football teams. Coach Chris Stevens credits the daily adversity the student-athletes face.
“We practice in four different locations a week, we commute from five boroughs, Long Island and Jersey, long commutes,” he said. “And they have high academic expectations to boot.”
But this band of brothers is even closer. That’s because 11 of them who hail from the Rockaways were displaced by Hurricane Sandy.
“The 11 have been out of their houses and their commitment inspired the other guys,” Stevens said. “They wanted to do it for them, they wanted to emulate them. It took the whole character of the team to another level.”
On Saturday night, Xavier capped a remarkable and emotional postseason run, beating St. John the Baptist 35-14 to capture the CHSFL Class AA title at Mitchel Athletic Complex.
It is Xavier’s first Class AA championship since 1996 when the Knights won what was called the Varsity A championship.
“It’s beyond words,” senior Jimmy Wolfer said. “I’ve been thinking about this since freshman year. It just feels so good to win this game. I’m just so choked up by it.”
Wolfer, who had a key interception in the third quarter that set up Ryan Kilgallen’s third touchdown run, is one of four displaced players who have been living with tight end Connor Sweet.
Kilgallen, who had 16 carries for 104 yards, Ryan McDade and Sean Carley were the other three who stayed in Sweet’s Manhattan home.
“The support I knew I had from him as well as my other teammates just brought us together and made it so much more special,” Kilgallen said. “I really think that’s what gave us that push to make this playoff run.”
Kilgallen said he carried the momentum from a solid performance in a Turkey Bowl win over Fordham Prep that also doubled as the CHSFL Class AA semifinals. He said he dedicated his game to his father.
“I was playing for my dad today,” he said. “My dad is so special to me, he’s such an important person to me.”
Trey Solomon, the CHSFL’s leading rusher, capped a spectacular junior season by rushing for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a late interception that sealed the victory.
“I don’t know yet,” Solomon said when asked how it feels to win the title. “I still feel like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and have to get ready for practice again on Monday.”
Xavier (9-2) jumped in front 7-0 when Kilgallen dived inside the pylon for a 5-yard score with 2:59 left in the first quarter.
St. John the Baptist (9-2), which beat the Knights, 14-0, in Week 2, tied the game on a 1-yard score by Jake Wiswall with 9:23 remaining in the second quarter.
Kilgallen added his second touchdown, a 27-yard run, with 7:42 left in the second quarter and Solomon added a 21-yard score to give the Knights a 21-7 halftime lead.
Wolfer picked off Cougars quarterback Greg Egan at the 43-yard line and ran it back to the Baptist 5, setting up Kilgallen’s third touchdown on the next play to put the Knights in front, 27-7, with 2:54 left in the third.
Baptist threatened a comeback when Oscar Frisby scored a 1-yard TD with 6:09 left in the fourth quarter, but Solomon ended those thoughts with a 1-yard score of his own with 1:44 left in the fourth.
After losses to Baptist and St. Francis Prep, followed by Hurricane Sandy, Xavier wasn’t supposed to make a deep playoff run. But the Knights battled on, beating the top two seeds – Mount St. Michael and Fordham Prep – before knocking off Baptist to win the championship.
“It just shows the perseverance of all of us,” Kilgallen said. “The community itself of the Rockaways, Breezy Point, it’s a great community, it’s tight knit. The motto is keep calm and rebuild because we know we’re going to get it done and come back stronger.”