Canisius High School’s motto prior to last season’s contest against Aquinas Institute was summed up in one word: Enough. As in the Crusaders had enough of the Section V powerhouse beating them on a regular basis.
Now that they’ve proved enough is enough by knocking off the Little Irish, Canisius, the state’s top ranked team, has a new dictum: Defend.
Said Canisius cornerback Keon Garrett: “Maybe they feel last year was lucky or something or maybe it was a fluke but now we have to show them we’re really who we say we are.”
The Crusaders (1-0) will try and relive that magical moment from last October while maintaining their top ranking when they meet the Little Irish (1-0) at 7:30 tonight at Aquinas.
“Aquinas has been the standard for a long time here in New York, they’re a great program that has won multiple state championships,” Crusaders coach Rich Robbins said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys so it’s always a good litmus test, always a good measuring stick.”
Canisius beat the five-time state champions last season for the first time since 1946, 35-7.
The Little Irish have won seven straight Section V titles, including last year’s AA title in its first year in the state’s largest classification after spending many years in Class A.
“This year we’re on top and they’re climbing up to try and knock us off the top,” Canisius tailback Qadree Ollison said. “What we have to do is prevent them from knocking us off the top and that’s kind of the analogy that’s been going on in practice all week.”
Canisius looked like the state’s top ranked team in its 42-15 victory over McQuaid with a defense that allowed just two first downs and 46 yards of total offense. But Garrett said the defense was far from unblemished and didn’t register any takeaways.
“It was simple stuff like people being not where they’re supposed to be when the play starts, or not filling correct gaps when the call is made,” he said. “The yards were more of us being pure athletes but we have to put that together with the mental part.”
Meanwhile Ollison, who on Monday announced he will attend Pittsburgh, rumbled for 195 yards and four touchdowns.
Tonight, Canisius is venturing somewhat into unknown territory. Long known as a power-run team, Aquinas is running the spread under a new offensive coordinator to better suit the talents of 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore quarterback Jake Zembiec, who has already drawn interest from Syracuse, Notre Dame and Georgia. Zembiec completed 10 of 16 for 142 yards, one touchdown and an interception in the Little Irish’s 32-8 victory last week at Bishop Timon-St. Jude.
“He’s a heck of a quarterback,” Robbins said. “I think with his skill set and his ability to throw the ball and having a new offensive coordinator, we expect to see a little more pass than we have seen from Aquinas usually.”
Said Ollison: “If we can get pressure on him and get him a little shaky I think we can be very successful.”
The key for Canisius will be limiting turnovers as McQuaid converted two turnovers – a pick six and scoop-and-score – into points. The Little Irish’s defense will be geared to hush Ollison with eight- and nine-man fronts – most of the pressure will come from the middle with Emilio Zuniga and Mike Holley, a pair of 5-10, 280-pound tackles – so quarterback Jakob Loucks must be solid in the passing game.
“Everybody knows about ‘Q’ and if you’re sitting in the defensive meeting room at Aquinas I’m sure there’s a big No. 7 as the No. 1 thing they need to stop,” Robbins said. “As teams try to crowd us at the line – we’re still going to run the ball, we’re a running program – but we need to be able to throw the ball effectively 10-15 times a game to keep teams honest and to have a balanced attack.”
Robbins figures special teams will play a role in the contest and Canisius has a few things to clear up as McQuaid blocked three extra points.
“Most high schools it’s almost a liability but Aquinas is a school that really puts a lot of time in on that and use it to their advantage,” he said. “We’ve had to focus a lot on our special teams this week.”