No matter the sport, no matter the season, no matter when the contest falls on the schedule, there is one phrase that will get most people's attention in Western New York high school sports.
Or, St. Joe's-Canisius.
It's the kind of rivalry where which school is listed first can even get a reaction.
Take that matchup, put the rivals on the turf at Ralph Wilson Stadium with a championship on the line, and you certainly have quite the stage set. That is the case tonight, when the football teams will meet for the 83rd time, and just the second time in a championship game at The Ralph since the Monsignor Martin Association reinstated its playoff system in 2002.
If tonight's game is anything like the last time these two got together at The Ralph, you're going to want to be there.
Two seasons ago, the rivals met in the semifinals, with St. Joe's a clear favorite after having won the regular-season matchup. Then they played one of the best games I've ever seen. Chad Kelly, then a senior and now at Clemson, threw a touchdown pass with 18 seconds left to bring St. Joe's within one, then threw a two-point conversion pass to give the Marauders a 48-47 victory. It prevented what would have been a colossal upset by Canisius coach Rich Robbins' first team, one that finished 4-7.
The game was very much a coming-out party for Qadree Ollison, then a sophomore, now a senior headed to Pittsburgh. Ollison ran for 161 yards and two touchdowns in the shootout, and he was a split-second away from getting to Kelly on what essentially was a no-look pass on the game-winning conversion.
St. Joe's side had a tremendous sophomore participating in the shootout as well in Nigel Davis, who had eight catches for 123 yards and a touchdown that night. Davis, from Lockport, and Ollison, of Niagara Falls, grew up competing together in Niagara County little league football games, and tonight will be a final chapter of sorts for them.
This time, Davis (who is undecided on college but has received some Division I interest) and St. Joe's enter the game as a clear underdog after Canisius won at home, 21-0, in Week Nine.
However, St. Joe's is coming off its best offensive performance in weeks, a 38-12 victory over a surging St. Francis team. Based on how the two teams were playing heading into the game, I thought the Red Raiders were going to win. The 38 points are the second-highest total for St. Joe's all season.
The Marauders excelled behind Davis, who healed enough from an ankle injury to display some of his quick moves and breakaway speed as he scored two touchdowns. He's had one more week to heal for one final game.
It also helped that he ran behind an improved offensive line that has surged with the late-season addition of 6-foot-4, 255-pound sophomore Dan Carr from a preseason injury and the move to the line of ultra-versatile 6-3, 245-pound senior Tyler Hill (the defensive end has also played quarterback and tight end throughout his career).
But do the Marauders have enough to drastically turn around that shutout at Canisius three weeks ago? Can they be the first team to score on Canisius in more than a month?
The Canisius defense has six shutouts. It has given up only 36 points this year. Fifteen came at McQuaid in Week Two, both given up by the offense on an interception return and a fumble return for touchdowns; three came in a 3-0 loss at Aquinas; nine came at St. Francis, with the touchdown coming in the fourth quarter with reserves in the game; and the most recent nine came on three field goals in a 9-7 Oct. 18 loss at Cardinal Mooney of Ohio, which is 8-4 heading into this weekend's Division IV quarterfinals.
Defensive end TJ Wheatley, the 6-6, 245-pound junior, whose list of college scholarship offers starts with Alabama and includes many other top BCS schools, showed how much of a force he could be by blowing up Bishop Timon-St. Jude's first two plays in the semifinals. Junior linebacker Brad Zaffram leads the team in tackles and has three sacks, and he's one of 11 different Crusaders who have interceptions this year. Defensive back Josh Huffman had so many interceptions last year (six) that many teams have stopped throwing his way (he has one this season). Their list of contributors goes on, including senior linebacker Mike Sharpe and senior defensive back Ryan Richards.
The defense has been so dominating that Robbins doesn't hesitate to have his offense go for it on fourth down in their own half of the field. It happened in the first St. Joe's game, and in last week's semifinal against Timon, and three-and-outs followed.
St. Joe's has shown an ability – this season, and in years past – to come up with big offensive plays to keep them in games that they supposedly aren't supposed to be in (such as in its opening win over St. Anthony's and a 31-21 home loss to Aquinas). It sure helps that they have maybe the most dangerous offensive player in Western New York in Davis.
St. Joe's has to devise a way to get one or two of those big plays to put some pressure on a Canisius offense that, particularly in its games against its toughest opponents, has been one-dimensional – even if that one dimension is the outstanding Ollison.
Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get another classic in which we're wondering who will win right down to the final minute.
Around the playoffs
• This week's state rankings have two Section VI teams favorites and two underdogs as those teams return to Rochester's Sahlen's Stadium for this weekend's state semifinals.
In Class A, Williamsville North (8-3) is seventh while Union-Endicott (8-3) is 11th; that game is 8 p.m. Friday.
In Class D, defending champion Randolph (11-0) has been No. 1 all season. It faces No. 2 Tioga (11-0) at 5 p.m. Friday.
In Class B, Depew (9-2), which is ranked seventh, meets No. 1 and two-time defending state champion Maine-Endwell (11-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday.
In Class C, Cleveland Hill (11-0) is fourth while Chenango Forks (10-1) is third; they play at noon Saturday.
We will publish game day preview capsules on all four games this weekend.
• One regret that is as great as tonight's matchup is that St. Joe's senior linebacker/running back Rodrick Payne is unable to play after suffering a knee injury in midseason. Payne, who caught that last-minute touchdown from Kelly as a sophomore, is one of the absolute best football players in Western New York.