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Canisius set to face high-powered offense in state Catholic final

Winners love trophies. It’s a symbol of competitive superiority.

Canisius has a chance to add to its football championship collection Sunday, but while waiting for that opportunity the Crusaders found a unique way to satisfy their competitive thirst.

So how did that intra-squad bowling tournament go last weekend at Sunset Lanes?

“It was fun, it was a good time,” said coach Rich Robbins, who fell the most pins during the gathering in which players and coaches split into four-man teams placed into brackets that crowned an overall winner. Team members also signed a bowling pin Robbins is displaying in his office to commemorate the outing.

“It’s hard to fill 15 days in between games,” Robbins said. “The season was supposed to be over (by now).”

That was until a scheduling conflict gave the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association champions an unexpected, yet welcomed, extra week to prepare for the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association championship game against Cardinal Hayes at Fordham University.

Tentatively scheduled before the start of the season for Nov. 26, the game had to be moved to 1 p.m. Sunday a few weeks ago when the finalists for the New York City Catholic High School League championship wound up being teams that had already been selected to participate in annual rivalry games on Thanksgiving Day – which is a big deal down in the Big Apple.

State rules require teams go four days in between games – thus the need to reschedule.

The Crusaders used the extra time to heal up following their tough 31-21 triumph over last year’s state runner-up St. Francis in the Monsignor Martin final. They used it to study film. The already close-knit crew used the bonus time to conduct one more team-bonding experience – at the bowling alley last Sunday.

While Robbins captured individual honors, a four-man crew consisting of defensive coordinator Brian Taylor, offensive line coach Brendan Barthel and players Sean Crotty and Tyler Wieczorek found its groove to win the team title. Linebacker Steve Dillon wasn’t on the winning team but prompted some oohs and aahs by rolling a 220 game.

Canisius hopes to bowl over the competition Sunday by doing what it does best – playing fundamentally sound football at a high level. The Crusaders (9-2) need to be sharp if they want to win their second state title in three seasons.

Cardinal Hayes (8-4) enters the final having won eight of its last nine games. The Cardinals are averaging 34.4 points per game and have scored at least 40 points in each of their last five games.

Hayes’ quarterback Christian Anderson has thrown for 3,267 yards and 34 touchdowns. He also ranks second on the team in rushing yards (568) and has run for nine touchdowns. Anderson’s passing yardage is the third-most in a single season in state history, as he surpassed the totals of former News Players of the Year Jake Sisson (Jamestown) and Chad Kelly (St. Joe’s) by passing for 323 yards during last week’s 43-24 victory over Mount St. Michael’s.

His favorite target, junior Lucas Nunez, has amassed the third-most receiving yards (1,433) in a season in state history. Nunez’s 20 touchdown catches are tied with three others – including Grand Island’s Alex Neutz (2008) and Maple Grove’s Josh Liddell (1998) – for second-most in a single year.

The Cardinals also could be bolstered by the return of senior receiver and Rutgers commit Shameen Jones. The 6-foot-2, 171-pounder has missed most of the season with a knee injury but caught three passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in Hayes’ 41-39 win in the downstate Catholic-league final over last year’s state champion Archbishop Stepinac.

Robbins said Hayes reminds him of last year’s South Park offense with its speed and explosiveness at the skilled positions. The Crusaders were the only team to beat South Park (23-20), which won the state Class A title.

Although Canisius hasn’t played an offense quite like Hayes’ this season, it believes its schedule has prepared the defense well for this moment.

“It’ll benefit us that we played Matt Myers (Timon-St. Jude), Casey Kelly (St. Joe’s) and Jerry Hickson (St. Francis),” Robbins said. “We’ve faced a lot of good quarterbacks this year. … That will help us facing another good quarterback this week.”

Canisius has also won a lot during Robbins’ six seasons because of its ability to get after it on defense. The Crusaders yield 12.8 points per game as its starting secondary featuring RaeQwon Greer, Jack Baldwin, Colby Moultrie and Keenan Ollison have combined for seven interceptions and defensed 16 passes. Greer has four interceptions and four defensed passes. Linebacker Cole Burniston (eight sacks) and defensive end Mason Hoose have combined for 15 sacks and countless quarterback pressures.

“Our front seven is hoping to give them some different looks to help out our secondary,” Robbins said. “We certainly have a big challenge this week.”

But a fun one since playing for a championship trophy is something every competitor covets.

“It’s a great opportunity, a once in a lifetime chance,” Greer said.

State Catholic football final preview capsule: Canisius vs. Cardinal Hayes

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