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Chance to play in title game is worth long trip for St. Francis

St. Francis is used to hitting the road to play a quality opponent. The Red Raiders’ last roadie of the football season is a long one, roughly seven hours to Westchester County, but making the trek has some benefits.

“It certainly beats sitting at home,” 30th-year St. Francis coach Jerry Smith said. “We don’t mind travelling, which we’ve done before. We’re just happy to be playing in this game.”

This game is the New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association championship. His young St. Francis crew heads to White Plains to face host and defending champion Archbishop Stepinac at 1 p.m. Saturday.

This is the Red Raiders’ second championship game appearance since the formation of the contest in 2014. They lost, 42-28, in 2015 to Stepinac in a game played at Grand Island High School’s Gene Masters Field.

This season-ending clash brings together the postseason champion of the Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association and the large schools division champion of the New York Catholic High School Football League. While the first two editions of the game were played at neutral sites (Mitchell Field on Long Island and Grand Island, respectively), this will be the third one in which one of the participating schools serves as host.

Last year, a talent-rich Stepinac defeated Canisius, 49-28, at the Stransky Complex in West Seneca to capture its second state title.

This season, St. Francis (5-6) and the Crusaders of Stepinac (7-4) have endured four-game losing streaks. However, they seem to be playing their best football when it matters most.

For the Red Raiders, they experienced some tough-to-stomach close losses — including three straight by a total of 11 points — before finding a way to break through. In the process, St. Francis avenged regular-season losses to St. Joe’s and Canisius during the playoffs, with the latter triumph coming in the Monsignor Martin final. That denied Canisius a third consecutive appearance in the state game.

“This was a tough schedule (we played) being young like we were,” Smith said. “That’s why we lost so many close games. Now, we’ve been able to put something together. Hopefully it continues. We’re not young anymore.”

No, the Raiders aren’t. In fact, if they had lost in the playoffs, they’d already be considered next year’s guys. Instead, they’ve further put themselves into being the hunted simply by reaching this game.

“They realize what’s at stake,” Smith said. “You just have to approach it like another game. It’s just the last game of the year. There is no next week. It’s just play this last game and keep it in perspective. You can’t let the bigness of the game overwhelm you. You just play the game.”

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