A night like this never seemed like a reality.
Mike O’Donnell, after four decades in the program and 27 spent as the head coach, deservedly soaked it all in. He stared in awe at the Stepinac fans still lingering at Fordham Univeristy, lining the railings and serenading his players as alumni and staff hugged each other, some all the way to the ground.
It didn’t seem real for O’Donnell. He’s a Stepinac lifer who has been through it all. But finally all of the mediocre seasons, all the years of struggling to compete in the CHSFL’s middle divisions, all the years of suiting up 28 players and even all of the recent seasons of simply not being big or fast or deep enough to compete with the league’s elite had reached its crescendo.
The greatest moment in Stepinac football history was unfolding before his eyes.
“The program has come a long way,” O’Donnell said. “It’s unbelievable to think of where we’ve come from. We’ve had up years and we’ve had down years. But to think we’ve made it to the pinnacle of our league, to win the AAA championship, is unbelievable.”
The final hurdle for Stepinac was a familiar one. The top-seeded Crusaders held off Westchester County rival Iona Prep, 16-14, in the title game before an estimated 7,000 fans — which is just below capacity at Fordham — to cap a 12-0 run through the CHSFL and land their first AAA title since 1955.
“None of us ever expected of this,” Stepinac lineman Dwayne Scott said. “You can’t put this into words.”
Even though the Crusaders insisted this was a normal one, and that the championship was more important than the rivalry, beating Iona Prep on Saturday was validation. It made the achievement even sweeter.
For decades, Stepinac football was in Iona Prep’s shadow. Stepinac’s success was only measured against its Westchester counterpart. And annually they failed to stack up.
“We had a tough 80s and 90s against them where they dominated us,” O’Donnell said. “Now we’ve won three times in a row. We’re right there with them now. It’s a tribute to our coaches and our kids. We’re not intimidated anymore. It’s awesome.”
Saturday night wasn’t pretty. And it certainly didn’t resemble the dominant fashion of Stepinac’s previous 11 wins this season.
But none of that seemed to matter when Terrell Morrison intercepted a pass as time expired and a raucous celebration ensued at midfield.
WATCH MORRISTOWN'S GAME-SEALING INTERCEPTION
“I never imagined this,” Stepinac senior quarterback Brandon Coleman said. “There have been so many great teams and so many great quarterbacks to come through here. To finally be at the top, to be crowned the AAA champ, there’s nothing better.”
Coleman, who’ll play at Navy, and the Crusaders jumped out to a 16-0 lead in a long, and somewhat weird, first quarter.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, an errant Iona Prep snap bounced towards the back of the end zone and quarterback Robert Madison alertly kicked it out for a safety. On the ensuing possession, Stepinac needed three plays to go 46 yards, the last 29 coming on a Malcolm Major touchdown run to put Stepinac up 9-0 in a flash. Major ran for 82 yards on 13 carries.
WATCH MAJOR'S 29-YARD TOUCHDOWN RUN
Damarcus Miller, the game’s defensive MVP, extended the lead with a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was the first of two picks on the night for the Stony Brook-bound senior.
WATCH MILLER'S INTERCEPTION RETURN FOR TOUCHDOWN
Malcolm Koonce had two sacks for Stepinac and Brian Malone and Robinson De la Cruz each had one. Chris Jordan, Terry McDonald-Preston and Dan Negron controlled the middle against Iona Prep’s rushing attack, holding the Gaels to 36 yards total on the ground. Gavin Heslop did a terrific job containing Iona receiver Qaadir Sheppard and the Crusaders overall defensive effort was championship caliber.
WATCH MALONE SACK
WATCH KOONCE SACK
WATCH DE LA CRUZ SACK
“The defense makes big plays all the time,” O’Donnell said. “All year, our offense gets a lot of credit for being flashy and all of that. But time and time again tonight our defense came up with the big play. They made sure we got out of here with a win.”
Iona Prep appeared rattled in the atmosphere early but settled down late in the first. Madison, who was 13 of 27 for 184 yards, connected with Brian Thompson for a 25-yard touchdown. Thompson broke a tackle at the 10 and carried a defender to the pylon for the score, making it 16-6.
WATCH THOMPSON'S TOUCHDOWN CATCH
The score remained that way until the opening minute of the fourth. Madison hit Dylan Mucci for a 43-yard touchdown before a 2-point conversion run cut the Iona deficit to two. Mucci caught six passes for 124 yards.
WATCH MUCCI's TOUCHDOWN CATCH
Iona had three possessions after that but Stepinac’s defense stood firm. Madison got the Gaels to midfield in the closing seconds but his desperation heave in the waning seconds was picked off by Morrison to seal it.
“That was just Stepinac-Iona. That’s what happens in this game,” Coleman said. “There’s no excuse for us to not put the ball in the end zone but the defense picked us up, just like they did last year in the quarterfinals.”
Stepinac's win over Iona last postseason was the first of three straight wins in the rivalry. The Gaels had won the previous three matchups and nine of the last 10.
Next up, the Crusaders will square off against the upstate Catholic school winner — Canisius or Bishop Timon-St. Jude — in the first-ever Catholic state championship game on Dec. 7.
For now, however, they will enjoy Saturday’s milestone moment.
“It’s unbelievable because there are some great teams in AAA," Coleman said. "Iona’s hurting right now but they well-deserved to win that game also. It just feels awesome because this group of guys really deserved it.”
Email Kevin Devaney Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org