Archbishop Stepinac makes strong case
After winning the AA title, are the Crusaders the top Catholic High School League team?
By Mike Mazzeo
Special to ESPNNewYork.com
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Archbishop Stepinac would love a shot to meet the winner of the AAA finals between juggernauts St. Anthony's and Iona Prep -- a team it already beat -- for the overall Catholic High School League title.
That won't happen.
Instead, the Crusaders will just have to settle for a AA championship and their first-ever 11-0 start in 65 years.
But regardless, let the arguments begin.
No. 5 Archbishop Stepinac made its case for being the best team in the CHSFL, routing No. 2 Kellenberg, 41-7, in the AA finals on Saturday at Mitchel Stadium in Uniondale. The Crusaders, who have competed in the AA finals three times in the last four years, last captured the championship in 2007. They will face White Plains on Thursday in their annual Thanksgiving rivalry game.
"I'm not sure if we're the best team," said Stepinac head coach Mike O'Donnell, whose team combined to score its opposition 426-66 in 2010. "But we beat everybody on our schedule [which included Iona Prep, a team they defeated 23-6 on Sept. 11, but didn't included 10-0 St. Anthony's.]
"Never in our school's history have we been 11-0. It's the first time in our school's history. It's a pretty special moment. We have one more game left, so we gotta come and get ready for that. Winning the championship is a special thing. It's a great league and we're very proud of the kids."
Senior quarterback Tyrell Goodman, who was named Most Valuable Player, threw for 100 yards and two touchdowns, while running for 80 yards and another score. Junior fullback Caleb Gilligan-Evans added 82 yards on 19 carries and two TDs.
"I guess, you could say that [we're the best]," Goodman, who has an offer to play collegiately at Stony Brook and is also receiving heavy interest from Temple, Akron, Ohio, Delaware and New Hampshire. "We have a great group of guys here that are willing to do whatever it takes to win.
"I wouldn't doubt our team [if we played St. Anthony's or Iona Prep]," he added. "If we were in the AAA, hopefully we'd be there. But we're in AA and we're just worried about taking care of business in our league."
It was Gilligan-Evans who rumbled up the middle for two first-quarter scores, allowing Stepinac to jump out to a 14-0 lead.
Then Goodman, who finished the season with 32 total touchdowns, got into the act with 6:42 remaining in the second quarter, taking in a keeper from three yards out that made it 20-0. He ultimately capped the first half scoring with a three-yard touchdown strike to sophomore wide receiver Justin Thomas 16.4 seconds before the second quarter ended.
"Tyrell and Caleb have been huge for us all year long," O'Donnell said. "They've meant so much to us."
And the offensive onslaught continued early in the third quarter as Goodman hooked up with junior wideout Vincent Narog on a 51-yard TD pass four minutes, 27 seconds to increase the Stepinac cushion to a comfortable 35-0 margin.
The Crusaders' defense, which played stout all game long, nearly scored their sixth and final touchdown when end Austin Taps caused a fumble at the Stepinac 27 and linebacker Brian Byrnes returned it all the way to the Firebirds' 1-yard line with six minutes remaining in the third. That set up a one-yard score by tailback Lance Ladson on the very next play that brought the score to 41-0 in favor of Stepinac.
"Coaches to do a great job getting them ready for all the different formations," O'Donnell said. "The kids do what they're told to do. And we've got some great players out there with [Syracuse bound] Donnie Simmons, Taps and Byrnes. They've been great all year long."
The Crusaders' defense bid at pitching a shutout ended with 1:34 left when Kellenberg senior quarterback Nick Fiore found senior wideout Gary Cioffi in the back of the end zone.
Still, it was a dominant performance to say the least.
"Our defense has picked us up all season," Goodman said. "We owe them."
Kellenberg (5-6), a AAA-AA team, failed to qualify for the AAA playoffs after finishing 3-5 and dropping its last game to St. Joseph by-the-Sea.
But once the AA playoffs started, the Firebirds began looking like a different team. They throttled No. 7 Christ of King 41-18, in the quarters, then demolished No. 3 Chaminade, 37-20, in the semis to advance to the finals.
Stepinac reached the finals by handily beating No. 4 St. Francis Prep, 42-0, and No. 8 Cardinal Hayes, 46-6.
When the game ended, the Crusaders went over to their sideline and celebrated with their fans, then posed for pictures with their AA championship trophy. Who knows, maybe they would've had a real chance to take claim to the AAA hardware as well.
So who are they rooting for?
"Iona Prep," Goodman said. "We want to see the title come back to White Plains. We won it, so we hope they won it."
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
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