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Aquinas wears down St. Joe’s in 31-21 victory

With his team down by a touchdown in the fourth quarter at St. Joe’s, Aquinas coach Chris Battaglia had one main thought: “They’d really not stopped us.”

The Marauders hadn’t, using big plays to take a one-point halftime lead they increased to eight heading into the third quarter. In the fourth, a very warm day, a very lopsided stat sheet and a very talented team wore down St. Joe’s as Aquinas returned to Rochester with a 31-21 victory.

Standout sophomore quarterback Jake Zembiec threw for three touchdowns as the top-ranked Class AA team in the state used a 12-0 fourth quarter to hand St. Joe’s, No. 9 in the state and No. 1 in The News large school poll, its first loss.

“We ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, we just couldn’t answer the bell anymore,” said coach Dennis Gilbert of St. Joe’s, which won at Aquinas last year. “They’re a great team. I’d like to play them every week. I love playing them. They’re well coached, they’re disciplined, they play hard. It’s just a good, hard-fought game all the time.”

On a summer-like day that brought out an estimated 3,200 to the Robert T. Scott Athletic Complex, Aquinas (4-0) had 17 first downs to six for St. Joe’s (3-1), and it outgained the Marauders, 463-244.

Zembiec, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder who started as a freshman and is already garnering attention from major Division I colleges, completed 18 of 31 passes for 314 yards out of the Li’l Irish’s spread offense.

Zembiec hit senior Alonzo Turney for a 28-yard touchdown pass on the Li’l Irish’s second drive, and Aquinas was in position to increase its lead to start the second quarter as it had a first-and-goal at the 6. That’s when St. Joe’s got the first of a handful of huge plays that enabled it to lead most of the game.

Zembiec was hit as he threw by junior defensive end Connor McKenna, and the resulting short floater of a pass was intercepted by senior Tyler Hill, who ran 94 yards for a game-tying touchdown. Aquinas went up, 13-6, on a second quarter Zembiec-to-Alex Bianchi 23-yard connection.

St. Joe’s attained its first and only first down of the first half six minutes before halftime, and it came on a highlight of an 80-yard touchdown run by senior Nigel Davis. Davis took a handoff on the end-around and, running from left to right, picked up one block and then made a handful of tacklers miss before staying one step ahead of the Aquinas defense the rest of the way to the end zone to supply St. Joe’s with a 14-13 halftime lead.

The Marauders opened the second half with a scoring drive, in which a 60-yard pass from sophomore Michael McCarthy (8 of 22, 97 yards, one interception) to sophomore Justin Jones helped lead to a 1-yard score by Davis and a 21-13 lead with 9:57 left in the third.

St. Joe’s managed to remain in the lead heading to the fourth at 21-19 after Zembiec hit sophomore Earnest Edwards for a 24-yard TD pass but could not complete a two-point conversion pass with 2:09 left in the third.

In the fourth, St. Joe’s stopped Aquinas’ first drive, but couldn’t keep from being overwhelmed. A 58-yard pass from Zembiec to Edwards set up a 1-yard run by senior Donato Clemente that gave Aquinas a 25-21 lead with 8:38 to play. Two St. Joe’s drives later, it reached the 50 but on fourth and 4, its chance ended with an interception. On the next play, senior Luch Pietropaolo ran 62 yards for a touchdown and Aquinas led, 31-21, with 4:52 left.