The success of the Stepinac High School Football Team the past six years in November is no less than remarkable. The Crusaders record the past six years in the month of November is 20-3 overall. Furthermore, within those six years the Crusaders won three CHSAA NYS Football Championships and four CHSFL AAA Championships, including back-to-back NYS and CHSFL Titles the past two years.
After losing their only regular season game to arch rival Iona Prep on a fluke fumble recovery for a touchdown, 36-35, on Sept. 28, the Crusaders ran the table winning their next four straight games by a total point spread of 150-57.
They finished the regular season with a 7-1 record while earning a two-seed and a bye in the Quarterfinals in the CHSFL AAA Playoffs. However, with all eyes focused on Iona Prep, the number one seed finished the regular season undefeated at 8-0. Stepinac waited their opportunity to compete in the Semifinals and possibly get another chance to avenge their only loss of the season against their nemesis Iona Prep.
Nonetheless, lurking in the background was the number four-seed Cardinal Hayes High School, who some CHSFL aficionados estimated was the best team in AAA coming into the 2019 season.
The Cardinals starting quarterback transferred very early in the season and they struggled to find uniformity. They lost to Stepinac on a last second field goal by Enda Kirby, 28-26, on Oct. 19. Then the Cardinals took back-to-back losses into the Playoffs with a devastating loss, 58-41, to Iona Prep.
When the CHSFL Varsity AAA Playoff Brackets were released it read: Iona Prep #1 bye will play winner of Hayes #4 vs. St. Anthony’s #5 in the Quarterfinals. Stepinac #2 bye will play winner of Monsignor Farrell #6 vs. Christ The King #3 in the Quarterfinals.
Hayes thrashed St. Anthony’s 61-14 in the Quarterfinals and awaited the next opponent the undefeated Gaels in the Semifinals. Christ the King beat Farrell in the Quarterfinals and then Stepinac trounced the CTK, 43-6, in the Semifinals.
However, on Saturday, Nov. 9, at the same time the Crusaders were doing away with the Royals in White Plains, there were rumblings coming from New Rochelle that number four-seed Cardinals had just shocked the undefeated number one seed Iona, 45-34, in the AAA Semifinals. This win by the Cardinals ruined the much-anticipated match-up between Stepinac versus Iona Prep in the CHSFL AAA Championship.
Nonetheless, it set up a rematch of last year’s Championship game which Stepinac won 29-18 over Hayes to win back-to-back CHSFL AAA Titles. The Crusaders then went on to win the CHSAA NYS Football Championship also for the second straight year.
But there would be no three-peat for the Crusaders this year, as it was the Cardinals turn to take home the Michael Cunnion Memorial Trophy. Cardinal Hayes beat Stepinac, 25-7, to capture the 2019 CHSFL AAA Championship, at Mitchel Athletic Complex, in Uniondale, on Saturday.
“We had a great year; the players played their hearts out. We met up with a very talented team. We had our chances and we just did not capitalize,” commented Mike O’Donnell, after completing his 32nd year as Head Coach of the Crusaders.
The Crusaders only score in the game came after the Cardinals fumbled on their first offensive possession in the first quarter. Stepinac recovered in their territory and a few plays later junior running back Kyle Benjamin found a crease in the Cardinals defense and ran 66 yards for a touchdown.
Who would have ever thought after Stepinac crushed their last four opponents in the regular season, 150-57, and then ran over CTK 43-6 in the Semifinals that they would only manage seven points in the Championship Game.
The Cardinals defense turned the tables on the Crusaders led by Defensive MVP of the Game, Nicholas Burgess with seven tackles and four sacks. Furthermore, Cardinals sophomore quarterback Henry Belin, who was expecting to merely play junior varsity this season after transferring from Bergen Catholic, was selected Offensive MVP of the Game. Belin completed 12-of-18 passes for 205 yards with one touchdown. Cardinals’ running back Jalen Smith was the leading rusher of the game with 125 yards and the one touchdown on 13 carries.
Stepinac quarterback Joey Carino, who rewrote the Stepinac history books during his varsity career completed 7-of-22 passes for 108 yards in the Championship Game. Carino, who threw for over 3100 yards in his three-year varsity career and broke the single season passes record at Stepinac, will take his talents to the University of Albany in September.