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Canisius pulls away to end St. Francis' championship reign

St. Francis did its best to slow down Canisius, but it’s pretty tough to contain the Crusaders – especially when they’re filled with determination, patience and resolve.

It took all of those attributes, along with contributions from several playmakers for Canisius to turn its season into a championship one.

The Crusaders captured their fourth Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association playoff football title in five seasons by ending the Red Raiders’ championship reign, 31-20, in a game that hung in the balance well into the fourth quarter.

An estimated 2,000 at New Era Field watched Canisius break things open during the final 9 minutes, 42 seconds. The Crusaders outscored St. Francis 21-14 to gain the payback they’ve been seeking and working toward ever since being crushed in last year’s final, 42-7.

Canisius (9-2) did beat the Red Raiders (4-6) two months ago in a regular-season encounter, 55-13, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the Crusaders. Thursday’s triumph did.

“This is the game that mattered,” said Canisius senior running back RaeQwon Greer, who rushed 15 times for 143 yards and two touchdowns and also made an interception that led to a field goal. “It feels great (to be champions). … It was a grind. Our goal was to be physical and break their will.”

The Crusaders eventually did, as the combined rushing efforts of Greer and juniors Jayce Johnson and Kenyatta Huston (345 yards on 38 carries) offset a big day by St. Francis junior running back and Connolly Cup finalist Dylan McDuffie (33 carries, 216 yards, two touchdowns).

After St. Francis pulled within 17-14 on the second of McDuffie’s two touchdowns (he also caught a 9-yard pass for a score), Huston and Greer delivered the knockout blows as Canisius’ line opened big holes for them to run to glory. Huston scored from 39 yards out on the Crusaders’ first offensive play after McDuffie’s score with just over seven minutes remaining. Greer added a 70-yard touchdown burst up the middle three minutes later.

“Kenyatta, RaeQwon, they’ve been doing it all year,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. “When you need a big play, those guys always seem to find a hole. We’re lucky to have those guys and they made big plays when we needed them most.”

The Red Raiders, featuring all-time Western New York passing yards leader Jerry Hickson, kept the Crusaders off balanced by handing the ball off to McDuffie. Mistakes prevented St. Francis from being able to come up with a potential game-changing play to wobble Canisius.

The biggest gaffes:

-- Greer picked off a half-back option pass from Dawson Tyger at Canisius’ 20 that led to Blake Haubeil’s 47-yard field goal just before halftime.

-- Late in the third quarter, Hickson completed an 18-yard pass to Retsen Daley to convert a fourth-and-9 and seemingly give the Red Raiders a first down at Canisius’ 27. An illegal block near the end of the run-after-the catch put Frannies in a spot where it had to replay the down. The re-do didn’t go so well as Canisius’ Jeremy Cych snuffed out a screen pass to McDuffie for a loss of 4.

“The illegal block, that was a huge play,” St. Francis coach Jerry Smith said. “Hats off to Canisius. They had to play good to beat us and they did.”

Hickson finished 12 for 24 for 117 to cap his four-year career with 7,638 passing yards.

The Crusaders tried to run away with it early, but St. Francis didn’t let them. Each team exchanged big plays during a closely played first quarter. Johnson (7 for 12, 97 yards, one interception) hooked up on a 43-yard pass play with fellow junior Paul Woods to set up Mason Hoose’s 3-yard touchdown run on the game’s opening drive. St. Francis responded later in the quarter when senior defensive tackle Tyler Grisolia read screen pass and returned the interception 43 yards for a TD that made it 7-6.

Each team failed to connect on potential game-changing plays over the next two quarters. Canisius didn’t get frustrated. It cashed in on its chances in crunch time to earn the right to play for its second New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association title in three seasons.

The Crusaders will play at either Archbishop Stepinac or Cardinal Hayes for the crown. The game against the New York City-area champion is slated for Dec. 3 but SAT testing could lead to it being rescheduled for Dec. 4.

Canisius isn’t satisfied with just being the Monsignor Martin champion, but that will do for now.

“We’re the champions again,” Robbins said. “It feels great.”

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