For Monroe-Woodbury head coach Bernie Connolly, the focus during his team's 35-7 victory over host Archbishop Stepinac Saturday night wasn't entirely on football.
Connolly, both an alumnus of and former coach at Stepinac, was thinking about the man to whom Saturday's game was dedicated: Joseph R. Riverso.
Riverso was a bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald who died at the age of 34 during the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. He was a former coach and player under Connolly at Stepinac. The annual game under the lights is a chance for the community to reflect on Riverso’s memory, especially for the visiting Connolly, who calls revisiting Stepinac “bittersweet.”
Malcom Major catches a punt in thr pouring rain.
Monroe-Woodbury coach picked up a win in his return to Stepinac, where he played and coached.
And, upon his return, he faced off Saturday against a long-time friend and one who shared in the pain of losing Riverso.
“Bernie’s a very good friend of mine and I worked with him for many years here,” Stepinac head coach Mike O’Donnell said. “I got the job when Bernie left.”
“We’ve stayed in contact and, when Joe died, it was a really tough moment for all of us,” O’Donnell continued. “It’s a great night for the community, but it would have been nice if the weather had been better, the crowd was a little bigger.”
On Saturday, after what looked like weather conditions might force a cancellation prior to kickoff because of driving rain and lightning, the conditions let up and caused only a 15-minute delay.
“That’s why the rain stopped,” Connolly said, pointing to the sky. “Joe let us play.”
“Joe was a perfectionist. I almost went after him the first day of practice because he asked me ‘Why?’” Connolly recalls fondly. “I almost went after him. He always wanted to know what was going on. That’s why he was a natural coach.”
Monroe-Woodbury started quickly on Saturday, as cornerback Ricky Giraldo intercepted a Stepinac pass early in the first quarter, setting the Crusaders up in good scoring position. The drive led to a scrambling touchdown from quarterback Kevin Carr and a 7-0 early lead.
“I think the turnover gave us a little bit of juice because when you’re coming in facing a quarterback of that caliber and you get an early pick,” Connolly said. “I think we did get some confidence with that.”
After a quick Stepinac three-and-out, running back Mark Tooma returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, giving the Crusaders a 14-0 first-quarter lead that they would never relinquish. Tooma rounded out the evening with 86 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Stepinac, coming off its first ever trip to the CHSFL Class AAA final now prepares for a Sept. 15 match-up with Xaverian in a rematch of last year’s semis.
"It's back to the drawing board,” O’Donnell said. “Now we have to get ready for league play, which is difficult, so we'll see."