The Canisius Crusaders had every reason, to take the foot off the pedal heading into Saturday’s Monsignor Martin championship game.
They were the defending the Catholic state champions and hadn’t gotten too much of scare in the regular season from their league opponents.
But they didn’t take anything for granted.
The Crusaders battled with rival St. Joseph’s as they pulled out a 22-14 victory to once again take home the MMAA championship.
It was very different than their week four matchup when Canisius triumphed over the Marauders with a 39-point margin of victory, in a game that was also played at New Era Field.
But Crusaders’ head coach Rich Robbins wasn’t letting his team hang their hats on that game.
“We knew St. Joe’s was banged up so it didn’t mean anything,” Robbins said. “Once you get into the playoffs it’s a new season. A championship game against your rival, we knew they were going to show up today.”
The St. Joe’s Marauders got the momentum heading into the final stanza when they blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt at the end of the third quarter.
But the momentum was short-lived as Canisius linebacker Joe Jamison stripped the ball away from the runner on the second play of the fourth quarter and took it 25 yards for the game-winning score.
“My teammates stood the runner up in the hole and I saw the ball and took it from there,” Jamison said. “As a team, we talk about it and I’m usually the one who’s supposed to force the ball out. It’s something we’ve been working on all year.”
According to Robbins, the play was indicative of what Jamison has been doing all season.
“It was the play of the game,” Robbins said. “It’s a huge play to get a turnover and score with it. That’s something Joe does. He’s the best I’ve ever seen to strip the ball out. It gave us all the momentum.”
Canisius will play NYCHSFL AAA champion Archbishop Stepinac, who took down St. Anthony’s 44-27, in the State Catholic title game next week at the Stransky Complex in West Seneca.
The Marauders turned heads when they went 80 yards down the field to score on the first drive of the game. The Marauders made a gutsy move going for it on fourth and one from their own 29 yard-line. The gamble paid off as Jaden Lofton took the handoff five yards to convert. On the next play, fellow tailback Phaybian Livingston went 40 yards to get the ball to the Canisius’ 31 yard-line. Lofton capped off the drive with a 21-yard run for the score. Quarterback Casey Kelly took the two-point conversion to give the Marauders the 8-0 lead.
St. Joe’s started their next drive from their own nine-yard line and were driven backward. After the Marauder punt, Canisius started their second drive at midfield.
The Crusaders took advantage of the strong field position quickly. Quarterback Jayce Johnson found Jamison for 12 yards. Two plays later, Johnson chose to keep the zone-read option and went 34 yards for the touchdown.
The St. Joe’s offense came back and responded with an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a one-yard QB-sneak on fourth and one by Kelly for a touchdown to take back the lead. Lofton took a screen pass 43 yards on the third play of the drive.
But Canisius made another big play in the kicking game as Joel Nicholas took the ensuing kickoff 88 yards to put the Crusaders in the red zone. On the second play of the drive, Johnson scored again on a zone-read play, this time for 15 yards.
After another Canisius touchback, the Marauders once again marched down the field. Lofton started the drive off with runs of 13, 14 and 4 yards. Kelly got St. Joe’s beyond midfield with an 11-yard run.
Later in the drive, the Marauders tried a trick play as Kelly went out for a pass. Kelly was interfered with by the defender resulting in an untimed down from the 3-yard line to end of the first half.
Ultimately, St. Joe’s couldn’t cash as Paul Woods came up with the pick in leaving the game tied at 14.
The rain started to come down a bit harder at New Era Field when the second began.
It affected both sides as neither offense could move the ball in the third quarter.
St. Joe’s had a promising drive start early in the quarter getting the ball at their own 46 yard-line. However, Kelly fumbled the ball away on the third play of the drive.
The ensuing drive got off to a quick start as Jamison ran for 16 yards but soon fizzled out.
The Crusaders made another big play in the kicking game as the punt went out of bounds at the St. Joe’s one-yard line. The Marauders went three-and-out on the drive, giving the Canisius ball in St. Joe’s territory.
The Marauders offense had one last shot getting the ball on their own 41-yard line with 2:52 left in the game.
The drive got off to a bad start for St. Joe’s as they came onto the field with only 10 men and took a delay of game penalty.
But then Kelly took the game over.
The quarterback then found Sam Kline for 12 yards to make it third and six. After getting sacked for a 7-yard loss on third down, Kelly came back connected with Micah Brown for 15 yards to extend the drive.
Kelly made another clutch play, scrambling for 25 yards on fourth and 23 and then came up to spike the ball with 15 seconds left.
St. Joe’s was given one final chance as the Crusader safety dropped an interception and a pass interference on the corner, putting the ball at the Canisius 11-yard line with four seconds left.
However, Kelly’s pass over the middle was knocked away to give the Crusaders the win.
It was one of the most stressful moments of the season for Robbins, but he was glad it ended well.
“They had fourth and championship a couple times on that drive,” Robbins said. “I’m a little old for that. The heart was really going. It was great to see that last incompletion and the zeros on the clock. Those are the moments you play sports for.”
It was a nervous couple of minutes for Johnson who couldn’t do anything but watch from the sideline, yet he had the confidence in the defense to pull out the win.
“It’s tough playing quarterback because you don’t play both sides of the ball,” Johnson said. “I trust in my boys. I expected them to come up with the stop and win us a championship.”
It’s Canisius’ fifth Monsignor Martin post-season title in six years.
“It starts with coach Robbins,” said Johnson, who helped lead the Crusaders to a state Catholic title last year. “He started a great foundation that has never been matched at Canisius. We plan to keep working on it.”