When Brandon Metz jumped a route on the first play of the fourth quarter and returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown, the St. Francis senior couldn’t help but think the Red Raiders were on the path toward completing a storybook comeback very few teams have ever achieved in a high-stakes title game.
They had nearly a whole quarter left to erase a seven-point deficit after being down by four touchdowns just seven minutes and eight seconds earlier to one of the top Class AA teams in the state. But the stars didn’t align for St. Francis, which is why Metz was among several Red Raiders in tears after Saturday afternoon’s New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association championship game.
St. Francis dug itself a hole too deep to climb out of at Grand Island’s Gene Masters Field as state co-No. 1-ranked Archbishop Stepinac of White Plains held on for a 41-28 triumph.
Metz, a Connolly Cup finalist, finished with three touchdowns – rushing for scores of 1 and 4 yards in addition to his pick six – and two interceptions during his attempt to win the final football game of his scholastic career.
It wasn’t enough, as Stepinac senior quarterback Tyquell Fields overcame a gimpy ankle to complete 16 of 25 passes for 238 yards and four touchdowns, while classmate Terrell Morrison caught nine passes for four touchdowns and 178 yards as the Crusaders (12-0) completed the perfect season and avenged a loss in last year’s final to Canisius, their only loss in 24 games.
“After losing last year to Canisius, we wanted to finish the job,” Stepinac coach Mike O’Donnell said. “My hats off to St. Francis for playing hard until the end. All year long, St. Francis made good plays. They made good plays in the second half to help themselves get back in the game.”
“In the second half, we had to prove that we were not a no-show,” Metz said. “There’s no words to express” my disappointment with losing. “I’m a senior so it’s the last game I can play with these guys. It’s heartbreaking.”
If Frannies had found a way to complete the comeback, it would have rivaled Randolph’s furious rally from 27-6 deficit to win last year’s state public schools Class D title, 48-41, over Chester as a comeback for the ages among Western New York high school sports.
But St. Francis needed to be flawless down the stretch to overcome a slow start littered with turnovers (three first-half interceptions and two early third-quarter fumbles). The Red Raiders weren’t as they failed to convert Metz’s first interception into points, stalling near midfield on that third-quarter drive.
They forced a punt after Metz’s pick six to earn a chance to drive for the game-tying score. St. Francis’ possession started promising with Metz ripping off a 32-yard run to Stepinac’s 36. The Red Raiders got as close as the 31 as false start on fourth-and-6 led to quarterback Jerry Hickson being sacked on fourth-and-long by Nick Dadario.
Four plays later, Malik Crawford scored on an 11-yard run to give the Crusaders a two-touchdown cushion with 7:30 left.
St. Francis responded by reaching Stepinac’s 14 on its next possession but turned it over on downs with 4:44 left as the comeback faded away.
While the Red Raiders failed to win the state title in their first appearance in the big game, the outcome doesn’t change the fact that this was quite the comeback season for the program.
After posting losing records three straight seasons, St. Francis (7-5) not only won more than it lost but also captured its first postseason Monsignor Martin championship since 2011 by becoming the first Western New York team to beat Canisius since the 2011 MMA semifinals.
“That was our goal,” winning the league, “but we wanted to come out here and win states,” Metz said. “We wanted to be the first one for our school.”
Their efforts will always be remembered by Jerry Smith, who himself shed a few tears after this one.
“I’m extremely proud of these kids,” the long time Red Raiders coach said. “I love them to death. They battled. They just fell short.”