The Game of the Year in the Hudson Valley lived up to the billing even down to the final second.
Iona Prep outslugged rival Stepinac in the CHSFL season finale on Saturday night. In a game that featured an unthinkable eight lead changes, the Gaels scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:16 left before Michael DeGasperis batted down a pass in the end zone as time expired to seal a wild 38-34 victory.
“The game was crazy,” Iona Prep wide receiver Sean Fleming said. “There were ups, there were downs. I’m just glad we came out on top.”
The Gaels (5-3) snapped a five-game losing streak to Stepinac (6-2) and did it in dramatic fashion. Derek Robertson, who threw three touchdowns, hit Fleming in the end zone for a 16-yard score with 1:16 left.
Stepinac swiftly moved across midfield and got down to the Iona 11 with 32 seconds remaining. But a sack for an 18-yard loss forced the Crusaders into three passes into the end zone in the final seconds. DeGasperis, a receiver put into the game on the final defensive series, ran in front of a Michael Nicosia pass to the corner and knocked it away to end it.
“We talked a couple of weeks ago against Farrell and they had a possible Hail Mary before the half,” DeGasperis said. “I wanted the coaches to put me in there and let me knock it down. I can make the play. They said no. Then this came tonight and I had to get out there and make that play.”
The final minute provided the finishing touches on one of the most heart-stopping and dramatic high school football games you’ll ever see.
The game, which streamed lived on News12Varsity.com, saw Stepinac take a 14-3 lead in the first quarter. Nicosia tossed a 44-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Barger and, after a Kevin McKenna interception, Malik Grant punched in a score.
Malkelm Morrison’s touchdown run for Iona Prep trimmed the deficit to 14-10 with 8:27 in the half and, after a Stepinac punt, Robertson started to find his groove. He tossed a pass into coverage downfield and Johnryan Freeman made a spectacular catch over two defenders, racing to the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“He just shows everything he can do,” DeGasperis said of Robertson. “Nothing is too big for him. No stage is too big. He can make all the throws. The pressure doesn’t get to him, even in a hostile environment. It doesn’t faze him. It’s really impressive”
Robertson, who left Stepinac for Iona after his freshman year, passed for 310 yards on the night.
Stepinac responded for the half with the help of Trill Williams and the wildcat scheme. Williams completed a fourth-down pass to keep the drive going and Nicosia finished it with a 1-yard keeper to give the Crusaders a 21-17 lead at halftime.
After a sloppy, penalty-riddled start to the third quarter for both teams, Ki’Shyne Shipmon finally broke through and got Iona the lead back with a 62-yard touchdown run. Iona went back ahead 24-21 with 4:04 left in the third.
But again, Stepinac answered. Nicosia rolled out and hit Tyler Winston deep downfield for a 53-yard score to give the Crusaders a 27-24 lead going to the fourth. Then came back Robertson, who hit Shipmon for a 16-yard touchdown and gave the Gaels a 31-27 Iona lead.
And that’s when the madness unfolded.
After an Iona Prep with under eight minutes to play, Stepinac quickly went to work. On the second play Williams burst around the left side for a 23-yard touchdown and Stepinac went up 34-31.
On the ensuing possession, Robertson hit a streaking Shipmon over the middle and the senior was off to the end zone. At around the 10 yard line, Williams caught up with him and started wrestling for the ball. Somehow, just before the goal line, Williams stripped the ball out of Shipmon’s hands and darted up field, returning it to Iona territory.
Williams was in the shotgun on Stepinac’s fourth down attempt at the Iona 15 when his pass of the middle was intercepted by Joseph Colaio-Coppolla. The senior safety returned it 70 yards before being brought down at the Stepinac 12 with under four minutes to play.
On fourth down, Robertson’s pass to the end zone was broken up, giving Stepinac the ball back with a chance to run down the clock for the win. Instead, Iona used a timeout and, on the third down, a pass fell incomplete, forcing Stepinac to punt with 1:58 to go.
Robertson seized the opportunity. The junior star led a scoring drive, hitting Fleming for the winning score.
“We’ve had three games this year that have come down to the final play and we’ve been on the wrong side of two of them,” Iona Prep coach Joe Spagnolo said. “Every time these two teams play it’s going to be like this.”