With the New York State High School Catholic School state championship game down to one play, senior captain CJ Ozolins wanted the football. Actually, he pretty much demanded it.
He got it. And he delivered.
Down one after scoring a touchdown on the game’s final play, Canisius coach Rich Robbins elected to go for the two-point conversion and Ozolins bulldozed his way home for the winner, giving the Crusaders an epic 25-24 win over Cardinal Hayes on Saturday afternoon at the Stransky Athletic Complex.
“CJ just said on the sideline, ‘Coach, let me get this for you. Believe in me,”’ said Canisius quarterback Tyler Baker, who connected with fellow sophomore Nik McMillan for a 13-yard touchdown as time expired to save the game. “We all believed in him. He got it.”
The Crusaders all got it. Hayes punted to the 14-yard line giving Canisius one last chance with 1:49 left, the Crusaders had a long way to go. But defying the odds has pretty much been a November-long theme for Canisius, which has been an underdog all year long.
“We knew this was for the game after we got a defensive stop,” Ozolins said. “Offense, we knew weren’t going to quit. We just kept driving down the field. We weren’t going to let anything stop us. That’s what got us down there.”
With that, the Crusaders claimed their third championship – second over the Cardinals – since the state tournament began in 2014. Canisius finished the season at 6-5, as satisfying a run to top .500 as you’ll ever see. The Crusaders started the season at 0-3 and suffered regular-season losses to rivals St. Joe’s and St. Francis and came out as the lowest-seed in the three-team Class A Monsignor Martin Athletic Association
“It was tough to start the season that way,” Ozolins said. “But just said all our goals are still intact – to get to this moment right here. We decided to go back and reset our boots and we just went on a little hot streak.”
Canisius opened the scoring on Baker’s 34-yard touchdown run by Baker but Hayes scored three straight touchdowns – two runs by Tafari Blackstock – and led 18-7 at halftime. Wisken Whited’s 29-yard field goal got the Crusaders within a score in the third quarter but Hayes seemed to seal the deal with 9:08 with a 57-yard touchdown run by Jalen Smith, who finished with 212 yards.
But the Crusaders weren’t done fighting and Joe Dixon’s eight-yard TD run closed the gap to 24-17 with 4:49 left. Canisius bent but did not break on the next Hayes possession and came up with the mandatory third-down stop inside the final minute, setting the stage for the dramatic.
“Our defense was great the whole game, the whole season,” McMillan said. “I’m proud of them, without those boys, we wouldn’t have been on offense there.”
But the Crusaders offense was on the field, giving Baker and friends a chance to go to work but with 86 long yards ahead. Baker completed six passes on the final drive, including back-to-back connections to Eric Kegler that got Canisius into Hayes territory. The Crusaders had a first down at the Cardinals’ 13 in the final minute. Baker’s first three throws missed. His fourth did not. The sophomore standout rolled to his left and lofted a perfect ball to the left corner of the end zone and McMillan out-leaped two well-positioned Hayes defenders for the touchdown.
“He’s incredible, he’s awesome,” Baker said of McMillan. “We had three receivers to the left, I saw a matchup and I liked it, and he did it for me.”
Canisius faced the option of all-or-nothing vs. overtime and if there was any doubt, Ozolins swayed his coach to go for it – and let him handle the rest. The senior talked the talk, and then walked the walk.
“I pulled coach off on the sideline and said, ‘Coach, I really want the game in my hands. I want to win it for us,'” he said – and did.
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