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Prep Talk: Ozolins' swoops in to secure top seed for Canisius

CJ Ozolins said it was just an “instinct play.”

Canisius can call it a game-saving act. St. Francis can point to it as another example of its potential with a reminder of just how difficult it is to win football games.

The key play of Saturday’s Canisius versus St. Francis clash serves as a reminder of just how close competitively the three large-school teams in the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association are to each other with the playoff tournament right around the corner.

Canisius versus St. Francis at the Stransky Complex in West Seneca had a bit of everything.

  • A 45-minute weather delay due to lightning, rain and hail. (Word after the fact is that a funnel cloud was spotted near the West Seneca-Orchard Park town border at that time, yikes!)
  • Resolve to overcome mistakes.
  • A nearly sensational comeback crafted by sophomore quarterback Jake Ritts (17 for 35 for 305 yards and two touchdowns), who overcame a slow start to produce an edge-of-your-seat finish.
  • Key defensive stands with the biggest coming out of the blue like a blur via Ozolins.

The junior turned a potential go-ahead touchdown by St. Francis in the closing seconds into the incompletion the Crusaders needed to secure a 25-22 victory and the top seed in the three-team Division A (large schools) playoff tournament, which begins in two weeks.

On the fourth-and-goal play from the 13 with 34 seconds left, Ritts – who overcame a three-interception showing and nearly rallied his team from a 16-point deficit during the final 13 minutes – found his man in the end zone. He threw a strike to a seemingly open Xzavier Janczylik, who leapt to make the grab. Except before his feet touched the ground, Ozolins delivered a crushing hit to the chest area that jarred the ball loose.

Jubilation Crusaders.

“He caught the ball in the end zone and I got him mid-air and just tackled him to the ground and the ball popped out and rolled away,” Ozolins said. “It was back side and it was a post (route). He beat our other safety so I had to drop back. … It was just an instinct play.”

“It was a heck of a play,” added Canisius coach Rich Robbins.

Dejection Red Raiders, who came close to scoring the go-ahead touchdown on the play before their final one (the receiver caught the ball behind the back line in the end zone).

“Their kid made a great play,” longtime St. Francis coach Jerry Smith said. “If you’re Canisius, what more can you ask for? ... Great play, great catch and then he makes a great hit. If we catch the ball and make the extra point it’s a different ball game.”

It’s the signature win the Red Raiders have been close to attaining but haven’t been able to nail down because of little mistakes that have come back to haunt them. Gaffes that have prevented a talented young team with potential from morphing into a good team that wins.

Both of their league losses have been by a combined total of five points. Throw in last week’s six-point loss to perennial state power Aquinas, and one gets a reminder that there’s only so many moral victories a team can withstand.

“I’m proud of the fact our guys kept swinging,” Smith said. “When you look at it all, our guys played hard despite everything that happened. We’re there at the end. The ball is right there. … We almost had it. Sometimes you win it, sometimes you lose it. You can’t turn the ball over that much. That’s the bottom line.”

Canisius (4-4) also made its share of mistakes and left points on the board but was the better team on Saturday.

Having battled-tested juniors and seniors is always a luxury late in the season. In addition to Ozolins, the Crusaders have a big-play senior in Joel Nicholas. He proved to be the biggest pain for the Red Raiders (2-6). Simply put, he had a day.

Nicholas rushed for 210 yards and a touchdown on offense and was a force on defense for the Crusaders with nine tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a tackle in the end zone that produced a safety.

What does this all mean?

The Crusaders are now 20-1 against St. Francis and St. Joe’s since 2011. Though Canisius beat both during the season the gap between them isn’t as large as in past seasons. All one has to do is look at the final scores of its wins (remember, Canisius rallied to beat St. Joe’s 34-28).

Throw in St. Joe’s 43-41 win earlier this year over St. Francis, its semifinal foe in two weeks, and who knows how things will play out in the postseason? It should be entertaining finding out.

Advantage, fans.

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