Before Aaron Chase is through playing football for Starpoint, coach Al Cavagnaro expects he will have shattered every one of the Spartans’ passing records.
Already the career leader in passing yards and touchdowns, the fourth-year starting quarterback pocketed another record in Friday night’s season opener, gouging Grand Island for 419 yards to break the single-game mark held by Jeff Tisak since 1984.
He also threw for four touchdowns in the Spartans’ 35-14 non-league victory at Gene Masters Field.
“I wanted to come in and I wanted to dominate,” Chase said. “The game plan was to come in and throw the ball as much as possible, and we definitely did that.”
Chase was driven by two painful setbacks from last year’s 6-2 season — being knocked out of the game late in a 33-7 loss to Grand Island that cost Starpoint a division title and breaking his hand in the regular season finale, which prevented him from playing in the Spartans’ playoff loss to Iroquois.
“It’s always been on my mind,” Chase said. “You always take the losses harder than the wins, you always keep the losses in mind. That was my motivation.”
Following the playoff loss, Chase told his teammates, “We’re not going to lose another game,” Cavagnaro said.
Cleared to throw again at the end of last December, Chase trained with Western New York’s second all-time leading passer Joe Licata during the offseason to improve his footwork, pocket presence and ability to read defenses.
Before going on to set the University at Buffalo’s all-time passing records, Licata tormented Grand Island in division matchups. He broke Williamsville South’s single-game passing record in a game here nine years ago.
Chase was Licata-like in starting out on pace for a 3,000-yard senior season. He misfired deep on the very first play of the game but ended up connecting on 20 of 36 passes, with eight of his completions going for more than 20 yards.
“As soon as I stepped on the field, it was all business,” said Chase, who also rushed for 34 yards and kicked all five extra points. “I went out and and stood strong in the pocket, made good throws, got the ball to my playmakers and they made great plays tonight. Some of the plays they made, I just went, wow, that was unbelievable.”
Max Bowden, the Spartans’ 6-foot-3 wideout, was Chase’s favorite target, catching seven balls for 154 yards. Brendan Gawel had eight catches out of the backfield for 147 yards and a 68-yard touchdown that put Starpoint ahead 28-7 early in the second half. Gawel also rushed for 57 yards and an early 5-yard touchdown. Joe Carlson scored twice on three catches for 48 yards and Matthew Spina had 70 yards on two receptions.
“When Chase and Bowden are going like that,” Cavagnaro said, “then you start to force teams to put a safety over the top, and then you see Gawel and Spina, so you see that there’s a lot of weapons for Aaron. They can take one away but they can’t take four guys away. I’ve never had that many horses, or a quarterback who is out there audiblizing like he’s a coach out there.”
Grand Island’s Cam Sionko, also a fourth-year starter regarded as another one of the top quarterbacks in Western New York, was slowed by a sprained left ankle early in the game and finished 12 of 30 passing for 119 yards and 13-yard second-quarter touchdown pass to Ben Moskala (five catches, 65 yards).
Moskala threw a 37-yard touchdown to Justin Gorrell on a trick play in the third quarter and finished the game at quarterback while Sionko had his left ankle wrapped in ice and walked off the field on crutches.
Grand Island coach Dean Santorio was frustrated by his team’s lack of focus early on, including misalignment in formations and a multiple momentum-killing penalties. The Vikings drove deep into Starpoint territory twice in the second quarter only to throw four incomplete passes on both occasions and come away with no points.
“That’s called gameday jitters,” Santorio said. “Guys aren’t paying attention, they’re not focused, their heads are going 100 miles per hour and they are breaking the huddle not really hearing anything. … tonight just shows that our mental focus the whole game was not very good.”
The game drew a large crowd filling both sets of bleachers and was broadcast by Spectrum Sports. Grand Island students held a small tailgate beforehand, the school band played from the stands and the Vikings players were introduced to an NFL Films soundtrack.
Now going their separate way in division play – Grand Island in A-2, Starpoint A-3 – the longtime rivals viewed the opener as a strong test and tone-setter for the rest of the season.
“I’ll tell you what, when we are in the division, usually the one that wins this game this game, wins the division,” Cavagnaro said. “They’ve got to be the favorite in A-2. Even losing tonight, I think they are the favorite in A-2, talent-wise. And Dean’s fantastic. He’ll have those guys ready. I wouldn’t want to be Grand Island’s opponent next Friday.”
Most of the time, Starpoint and Grand Island match up so well that, “you could put our uniform on them and their uniform on us and we’ve kind of looked the same,” Cavagnaro said. “Usually. With Chase throwing the ball, we looked a little different today.”