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Bigger, better Stepinac ends Canisius football's reign

Canisius could only withstand the waves of fresh bodies Archbishop Stepinac threw at it for so long.

The Crusaders hung tough for one half of football, but all it took was a dominating 9-minute stretch by their New York City counterpart to derail Canisius’ hopes of becoming the first repeat winner of the New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association title.

Stepinac (10-2) scored 26 of its 40 second-half points in the third quarter to erase a 14-9 Canisius (8-4) lead and went on to a 49-28 triumph in front of a standing-room-only crowd on a rainy afteroon at the Stransky Complex in West Seneca.

That makes it two state titles for the Crusaders of Canisius (2014 and 2016) and two for the Crusaders of Archbishop Stepinac (2015 and 2017). The road team has taken the championship plaque with it on the ride home every time.

“In each of those years, if I really look at it, the road team was the better team,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. “The team we had in ‘14 was pretty special, ‘15 Stepinac was better than St. Francis, last year we were better than (Cardinal) Hayes and today I think Stepinac was better than us.”

Stepinac, which carries a roster of 70 kids, was the bigger and better team on Saturday against Canisius and its group of 38. The downstate champs ran the ball 41 times to the tune of 338 yards to wear down a Canisius line that relies on all two-way starters.

“I felt like we played pretty well in the first half and were trading blows there, but as the game wore on I think that the fatigue factor set in on us a little bit,” Robbins said. “In the second half it really started to be apparent. The things that we don’t do well, they exposed, and when we had some plays out there that we needed to make, we didn’t make the ones we needed to in order to win.”

Senior quarterback Jayce Johnson was the catalyst for Canisius offensively with lead back Kenyatta Huston out with an injury and Joe Jamison not 100 percent with a bum ankle from the Monsignor Martin final against St. Joe’s.

Johnson ran for 92 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns while also completing 9 of 22 passes for 183 yards and two second-half scores to classmate RJ Brandon (five catches, 91 yards). But he also threw two interceptions and faced constant pressure from Stepinac’s pass rush, which recorded four sacks.

“They did what we saw on film, but they just blitzed a little more than we thought and we just couldn’t account for it,” said Johnson, who picked up his first Division I scholarship offer a few weeks ago from Wagner. “Everything we wanted was there. We missed a couple opportunities in the first half, a couple dropped passes or missed throws by me. It kind of hurt us late, but it was a great effort though.”

An effort that was thwarted by the two-way playmaking ability of Stepinac senior Atrilleon “Trill” Williams. The Syracuse commit ran eight times for 66 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 75 yards and two more scores on offense. He also had a pick and was the primary defender on Rutgers-bound Canisius senior Paul Woods (two catches, 75 yards).

“He’s a heck of a ball player,” Robbins said of Williams. “He made more plays and they made more plays than us. They’re a very good team, very athletic, present a lot of matchup problems obviously.”

Canisius senior Keenan Ollison pressures Stepinac quarterback Michael Nicosia in the second half. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Johnson’s 1-yard TD run with 3:43 left in the opening quarter was the first score of the game and capped off a five-play drive highlighted by a 62-yard bomb to Woods that got the Crusaders inside the 10.

The first quarter ended with a Stepinac safety one play after Canisius senior Keenan Ollison intercepted a pass at the goal line. Joe Jamison fumbled a pitch from Johnson in the end zone.

The Crusaders scored on a 75-yard pass from Michael Nicosia (182 passing yards) to Shawn Harris (three catches for 78 yards, 10 carries for 86 yards) three plays after the free kick to take a 9-7 lead.

Canisius went back on top, 14-9, with 7:45 left in the half on a zone read that Johnson took for 46 yards.

Then came the onslaught to start the third quarter. Stepinac scored four touchdowns and 26 points in 8:41.

Nicosia found a wide-open Williams for a 61-yard score on the third play of the half, Malik Grant (11 carries, 130 yards) went untouched for 25 yards, Tyler Decrescenzo ripped the ball away from Jamison and returned it 45 yards and Williams tip-toed down the sideline for 18 yards. Just like that, a 14-9 lead turned into a 35-14 deficit.

A 7-yard pass from Johnson to Brandon on the first play of the fourth quarter gave Canisius some life, but Stepinac responded quickly with a 13-yard jet sweep from Harris to erase any and all hope.

Stepinac’s last touchdown came on a 21-yard pass from Nicosia to Williams, who was lying down on his back in the end zone after being tripped up by a Canisius defender.

Johnson tossed a 47-yard pass to Brandon for the final score of the game.

“It’s always tough to end your season with a loss,” Robbins said. “We went from a big emotional high last week of beating our rival at the Bills stadium and being Monsignor Martin champs, and in this moment right now, all that kind of fades away for these guys because they really wanted to be state champs. I know it’s disappointing for them, but I just had to remind them that I love them. They had a great season with the tough schedule that we played again.”

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