There one positive out of Stepinac’s blowout loss to Cardinal Hayes six weeks ago was that, as bad as that afternoon was the Crusaders, it could have been even worse.
Reigning CHSFL champion Cardinal Hayes had its way with Stepinac in a finals rematch that sunny afternoon in White Plains, burning the secondary for 553 yards of offense. But on in the frigid temps on Saturday night, and against an overhauled defensive scheme, the Crusaders exacted their revenge.
Stepinac ousted the Cardinals, 13-12, at Rooftop Field outside of Yankee Stadium behind a stiffened defense that made three crucial red zone stops. The last came with 55 seconds to play when Hayes’ fourth-down pass fell incomplete, landing the Crusaders in the AAA final for the fourth straight year.
“Today we went into this game with a different approach,” Crusaders coach Mike O’Donnell said. “The offensive staff and the defense staff did a great job coming up with the game plan of slowing the game down and giving Hayes less opportunities. The kids did a great job with the plan and not getting frustrated.”
Stepinac, the No. 17 ranked team in the News 12 Varsity Tri-State Poll, advanced to Saturday's CHSFL title game against top-seed St. Anthony's on Saturday at Mitchel Field at 5 p.m. The game, which will be broadcast live on News 12 Varsity, is a rematch of the Week 2 meeting, which Stepinac won 39-18.
On Saturday, Stepinac’s deliberate approach on offense was balanced by a defense that disguised its zone looks and shutting down Hayes’ dynamic receivers.
Elijah Jones and Lucas Nunez, who combined to have 308 yards and four touchdowns receiving in the first meeting, were held in check on Saturday.
Nunez, a Sacred Heart commit, had 13 catches for 131 yards but his 10.1 yards-per-catch is more than half below his season average. Jones, a Boston College commit, had just one reception for 18 yards as he was defended all day by Trill Williams.
“It’s all business,” Williams said. “(Jones) and I are friends off the field. But when we step on it, it’s all business.”
Williams, who is committed to play at Syracuse, suited up after not playing last week because of injury. He had five tackles and was terrific in coverage as Stepinac took almost the opposite approach from the first meeting — putting very little pressure on the quarterback and dropping 7-8 back in coverage.
“We weren’t going to let this be our last game,” Williams said. “They have a great quarterback who is very hard to contain. But we did what we had to do and came up and made tackles.”
Hayes took a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter when Nasier Selgado capped a nine-minute drive with a 1-yard score. The series was prolonged when a Hayes punt was touched by a Stepinac player and recovered by Jose Franco.
Stepinac answered before the half when Michael Nicosia hit Alex Thomas for a 27-yard touchdown strike. The extra point missed.
The Crusaders defense came up with two crucial goal-line stands before the half. Joey Cappiello made a tackle at the goal line on fourth down for the first stop. The other came on the first play of the half when a fourth-down pass from the 9-yard line was incomplete.
Shawn Harris jump-started the Stepinac offense in the third quarter. The junior, who ran for 78 yards on 14 carries, broke a 22-yard touchdown to put the Crusaders ahead 13-6.
Hayes responded on its next series with Carlos Fernandez punching in a 2-yard touchdown. The Cardinals faked the extra point but Williams raced up and made the tackle.
“We kept within ourselves,” Nicosia said. “We went into halftime knowing we were so close. We were right there. We just had to execute and we did.”
Hayes’ last opportunity came with 4:37 left when it took over at its own 9. Sofian Massoud (22 for 23, 253 yards) completed three passes on the series, driving the Cardinals to the Stepinac 13 with 59.5 seconds to play. On fourth down, Hayes opted not to attempt a field goal after its kicking game struggled all day, but Massoud’s pass to the end zone was overthrown.
“We came into this game thinking that we had to win this one. We had to go back to the championship game,” Nicosia said. “There was no better feeling than watching those four zeroes come up on the board.”
Kevin McKenna led the defense with seven tackles, including three for loss, and a sack. Kevin Gray had six tackles while Isaiah Walker, Cappiello, De’Andre Smith and Tyler DeCrescenzo were solid in the secondary.
“Our JV won today and is going to the chip. Now we are too,” O’Donnell said. “We expect to be there. Today we came into the game expecting to win and to go back to the championship game. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if we didn’t have these couple of weeks. We aren’t used to not doing anything in November.”