WHITE PLAINS — As they lined up to ascend the metal bleachers toward the school, Vincent Narog and Caleb Gilligan-Evans were sobbing hard. They leaned toward each other, touched facemasks and each threw an arm around the other's shoulder pads.
After one of the most important wins in program history, Stepinac found itself overcome by emotion.
"This is just really unbelievable," said Narog, his face wet with tears. "Since the end of last year, we've dreamed of this. We wanted to top off a great year last year with a trip to the championship and we did it. This is so great."
The senior had put the final touches on an emotional and eventful CHSFL AAA semifinal Saturday afternoon, stripping Xaverian quarterback Isaiah Kearney 1 yard shy of the tying touchdown. Teammate Shane Hogan fell on the loose ball, ending a dramatic 27-21 overtime victory for Stepinac, which booked its first trip to the league title game in its history.
Junior quarterback Mark White scored on a 7-yard run on the first possession of overtime but the extra point was blocked. Kearney quickly ran for 9 yards, meaning one more would've given the Clippers an extra-point try for a comeback win.
That is, until Narog made one last big play in a game littered with them.
"It's the greatest game we've played on this field so far, that's for sure," joked Crusaders coach Mike O'Donnell, whose team began playing on its turf only last month. "But, it ranks up there with all the great ones, for sure."
Stepinac (8-2), the No. 2 seed, advanced to meet St. Anthony's, a 14-10 winner over Iona Prep, at a date and site to be determined. The Crusaders almost squandered an opportunity to win the league for the first time since 1955 by committing scores of miscues, including five turnovers, a missed field goal, a bad snap that prevented the go-ahead field goal attempt and the blocked extra point in overtime.
In fact, even against the CHSFL's highest-scoring team and No. 2-ranked defensive team, Stepinac controlled the game. It rolled up 401 yards to Xaverian's 307 and never punted all afternoon.
Three first-half turnovers negated their advantage and left the score tied 7-7 at the break. Touchdown runs by White and Narog — the latter a 75-yard reverse — gave the Crusaders a 21-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Finally, two consecutive fumbles after long first-down gains stung Stepinac. No. 3 Xaverian (7-3) heated up, pulling even on a touchdown pass from Kearney with 7:52 remaining.
"We just had to stick it out, keep moving forward and forget the past," senior Austin Taps said. "At halftime, we tried to forget the turnovers in the first half and come back stronger than ever."
Taps and senior Garfield Heslop were especially resilient. Taps had 13 tackles and two sacks while Heslop had a sack and a key third-down stop that stopped Xaverian and forced the brief but wild overtime.
White finished with 103 yards rushing and two touchdowns but it was the performance of a maligned defense that finished the victory.
Stepinac found its motivation and clung to it.
"We really needed to protect our house," Taps said. "Everybody was predicting us to lose. It was just motivation. That's all it was. We were hungry."