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Highly coveted prize on the line when Canisius hosts Stepinac in state Catholic football final

The last time Canisius faced a football team that shared its nickname, Bishop McDevitt of Harrisburg, Pa., pre-sold Battle of the Crusaders T-shirts to commemorate the first-ever meeting between the teams back in September.

No such garments will be sold prior to Saturday's contest between the Canisius Crusaders and the Archbishop Stepinac Crusaders, but there will be a highly coveted prize that goes to the victor of this crusade at Canisius High School's Stransky Complex in West Seneca.

Defending champion Canisius (8-3) hosts Stepinac (9-2) at noon in the fourth New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association championship game. The clash pits the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association playoff champion against its New York City counterpart.

The game also features the only two programs to ever hoist the championship trophy. Canisius defeated the Crusaders for the inaugural championship in 2014 at Mitchell Field In Long Island, while Stepinac captured its title the following year by defeating St. Francis in a game played at Gene Masters Field in Grand Island. Canisius defeated Cardinal Hayes, 50-44, for the championship last December at Fordham University in New York City.

Canisius will be attempting to make history this weekend. It will not only try to become the first reigning champion to repeat but also become the first to win the title before its home fans.

"It's a great opportunity for our program," Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. "The AAA champion out of New York City is always an excellent team so we're going to have a big challenge with Stepinac."

"I think having it at home we have a great advantage," said senior Paul Woods, who caught three touchdowns and had 179 yards receiving in last year's final. "Over this whole year we've been working hard to get where we're at right now."

There will be no shortage of talent on the field as both teams have their share of game-changers and future Division I prospects, including Syracuse commit Trill Williams of Stepinac. The running back/corner is coming off a four-touchdown, 188-all-purpose-yards performance in the Crusaders' CHSFL championship game triumph over St. Anthony's (L.I.).

Canisius has a top Division I commit of its own in Woods, who is heading to Rutgers. Quarterback Jayce Johnson, who completed 18-of-21 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns in last year's final, has an offer from Wagner. Receiver R.J. Brandon (Dartmouth) and running back Kenyatta Huston (Central Connecticut) are other Division I prospects.

"Last year was a very high scoring game," Woods said. "This year we want to have more points on offense and less on defense. I feel like if we all play as a team, everyone does their assignment we should come out with the win."

Canisius may be the defending champion but it heads into this one as a slight underdog. Stepinac has 74 players on its roster, while Canisius has roughly 40. Stepinac uses that depth to its advantage as it has only a handful of kids who play both ways. Most of Canisius' starters go both ways.

Also with a deep roster, Stepinac has lots of fast athletes it can turn to in hopes of getting a game-changing play in a key moment.

Canisius hopes its challenging schedule, which included tough nonleague foes that either had deep postseason runs or are still participating in state playoffs, has prepared it for this big moment.

If that isn't enough, Robbins hopes the opportunity to play at home for a championship strikes the proper chord.

"We only had two regular-season games at home so for those guys to get another opportunity to go out on their home field and play is great but especially since it's for a state championship," Robbins said. "To get to play this game at home, if we were fortunate enough to get the win what a storybook ending it would be for our seniors."

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