St. Francis has been Western New York's No. 1 football team since September. With 24 minutes left in their season, Zak Kedron and the Red Raiders showed why.
Kedron rushed for 333 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries as St. Francis dominated the second half to beat third-ranked St. Joe's, 21-6, in Wednesday night's Monsignor Martin Association League AA championship. The Catholic champions have been the same every year since the playoff format was instituted three seasons ago -- in the first game of the doubleheader, St. Mary's won its third straight title by dominating Walsh, 35-0.
An estimated 2,000 in Ralph Wilson Stadium saw St. Francis' Kedron earn the game's offensive MVP award as he finished the year with 2,014 yards and watched the Red Raiders win their fifth Catholic large school title in a row.
"It feels amazing," said Kedron. "If we didn't win this game, the whole season would have meant nothing. I couldn't have done any of this without my line, my fullback Kevin Rautenstrauch and (quarterback) Ilio (DiPaolo). I wasn't worried (at halftime) because we always come out in the second and play well."
St. Francis finished 8-2 in a season in which it beat St. Joe's, 21-0, in their first meeting and won at St. Ignatius of Cleveland to earn a week's stay in USA Today's national top 25 rankings.
After a scoreless, penalty-plagued (four on each team for a total of 80 yards) first half, St. Francis overpowered St. Joe's. The Red Raiders owned the ball for all but 1:54 of the third quarter, sending St. Joe's away on a three-and-out in its only possession, and held the Marauders (7-3) to just one first down in the second half.
"We knew it was going to be a tough storm in the beginning, but we told the kids, you've got to represent what's across your chest, and they did," said St. Francis coach Jerry Smith. "The second half we did what we do best: We ran the ball and we played hard."
St. Francis grabbed control with a classic 94-yard drive on the opening possession of the second half. Kedron played a huge part in the drive, carrying the ball 12 times, including a clean, 5-yard touchdown run around the right side to give St. Francis a 7-0 lead.
Kedron also had a key reception from DiPaolo in which he slipped a tackle to earn a first down on third-and-8 at the St. Francis 20. Kedron had a 5-yard third-down conversion, as well as runs of 9, 21 and 11 yards.
"We all just came together and we said, 'You know what? We can do it,' " said senior lineman Chris Smith. "The start was that 94-yard drive, and we knew it. . . . We were going to pound them down. They gave us a heck of a fight, but we really came together."
St. Joe's next drive ended quickly after senior Chris Smith stuffed St. Joe's standout junior quarterback Naaman Roosevelt after 1 yard, and juniors DiPaolo and Jim King combined to stop Turell Ahmed for a 6-yard loss. St. Francis' next possession moved 34 yards after seven Kedron runs, and then DiPaolo showed off his arm on a fourth-and-7 at the St. Joe's 36. DiPaolo rolled to the left, then unleashed a spiral that found Pat Haidon in the left corner of the end zone for a 14-0 lead with 9:44 left in the game.
A Kedron run made it 21-0, as he zipped through a nice hole to the left and sped past every St. Joe's player on a 51-yarder with 2:36 to play. St. Joe's got its touchdown on the kickoff return of Kedron's run, as Dominic Cook handed the ball to Roosevelt on a reverse and sped around the left side and down the sideline for the touchdown.
Junior Luke DeLuca of St. Joe's was the winner of the game's defensive MVP award, finishing with 16 tackles and three assists. DeLuca tackled Kedron on three straight goal-to-goal plays in the first half, including fourth-and-6.
Andy Gill threw for one touchdown and ran for another to earn offensive MVP honors, while Adam Bistoff ran for 199 yards on 28 carries as the Lancers (6-4) took a 14-0 halftime lead and overwhelmed the feisty Eagles (6-4).
"Our offensive line played great, we rode Adam all day, and the defense had the shutout," said Gill. "We were firing on all cylinders."
St. Mary's and first-year coach Mark Warner won the teams' Week Five meeting, 39-14, and dominated Wednesday from the start. Bistoff carried all but one play on an eight-play, 80-yard opening drive, finishing with a 7-yard score. Walsh had a nice drive get inside the St. Mary's 25 in the second quarter, but it ended with a fumble. The St. Mary's defense, led by junior linebacker and defensive MVP Alex Warejko, didn't allow Walsh out of its own half again until the Eagles' final drive.
"When you're filling (former coach) Joe Bremer's shoes," said Warner, "there was no other thing to do than win another championship."