The battle of two Catholic league football programs with something to prove ended appropriately at Chaminade High School Saturday afternoon: with a Hail Mary.
Down by eight points on third-and-long with less than four seconds to play, Joe Anile dropped back from the Stepinac 40-yard line and unleashed a long pass to Tommy Zenker, bounding up the right sideline toward the end zone. Zenker, who had had a tough afternoon up till then, wouldn't be denied this time; he reached up over double coverage and held on as the pass nestled into his hands. He came down. Hard. On the 5-yard line.
It was a rousing play that came up just short -- a fitting, though perhaps disappointing end for Chaminade, which had staged a rousing comeback that also came up just short, as the Flyers fell to Stepinac, 28-20, after trailing by 21 in the third.
"The Hail Mary," Anile said quietly after the game. "It was last-second desperation. We put it up, but we couldn't finish it."
It's no surprise this game was hard-fought. Stepinac (2-0), last year's AA champion, is intent on establishing itself as a legitimate AAA contender. The Flyers, meanwhile, are smarting from their 1-9 2010 campaign and coming off a 29-point victory over Kellenberg in Week 1.
"I think it's pretty obvious from watching the game, our kids played their hearts out," Chaminade coach Stephen Boyd said. "I'm proud of them . . . but we made too many mistakes early in the game."
The Flyers (1-1) tied the game at 7 on Anile's 1-yard run with 3:51 left to play, but the Crusaders answered back (and loudly) on a three-play drive, highlighted by Daniel Hoffer's 59-yard pass to a wide open Vincent Narog and capped by bruiser Caleb Gilligan-Evans' 2-yard scoring run. Chaminade then fumbled the kick return, which was recovered by Stepinac's Angelo Narcise.
Three plays later, the Crusaders struck again. Until then, Stepinac had been using Hoffer on pass plays, and subbing in Mark White on runs. Hoffer took the snap and handed off to White, who had come in at running back. White, though, dropped back and hit Narog for his only pass of the game, a 28-yard touchdown with 1:26 to go in the half. Another Chaminade turnover -- this time, a fumble on their first play of the third quarter -- set up Stepinac's fourth score: Hoffer's 15-yard pass to Justin Thomas for a 28-7 lead. Hoffer finished 7-for-11, with 160 yards and a touchdown.
"We had a slow start," Anile acknowledged. "But we knew we could take them. We just had to minimize our mistakes."
And so the Flyers did, scoring on a well-executed, 13-play, 6:41 drive, ending in Anile's pitch to John Desepoli, who swept right and broke through on a block by Patrick Nuzzolese for a 9-yard TD with 1:30 left in the third.
Anile's 18-yard, fourth-down TD run drew the Flyers to within 28-20, and a blocked punt with 39 seconds to go set up the last-ditch attempt, which was marred by a 15-yard holding call to put Chaminade at the 40 and necessitate that prayer toward the end zone.
"Giving a great effort is great," Boyd said. "But it's not acceptable if you lose the game and that's what everyone has to understand."