WNY Athletics

Red Raiders Claim Championship, Defeat Crusaders

For the first time since 2015 and for the eighth time in school history, the St. Francis Red Raiders are the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association champions.

The title comes back to Athol Springs after the Red Raiders hung on for dear life when a late fourth-quarter charge by the Canisius Crusaders fell just a bit short – touching off a celebration by the St. Francis players and coaching staff.

“Our hats are off to Canisius because they weren’t going to go away easily,” Red Raiders coach Jerry Smith said. “They’re a very prideful and good team, and they’re well-coached. We hope to honor other people by the quality of the opponent that you play, and I’m hoping that we’ll give that to another team.

“It was a great, epic battle. You can’t get much closer than that. It was back-and-forth, up and down the field. It was everything you want in a championship game.”

A few weeks ago, the Red Raiders and Crusaders met at a rainy Stransky Field with Canisius winning 25-22. This game would prove to be just as back-and-forth and unpredictable as the first meeting, as the Crusaders coughed up the ball on a fumble less than two minutes into the first quarter. St. Francis would take advantage of that turnover on a three-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jake Ritts.

Eight minutes later, Ritts and wide receiver Daniel Browning threatened to turn the contest into a blowout, as they connected on a short pass that went 76 yards to the house to give St. Francis a two-score lead. But the Crusaders wouldn’t give up.

After the Red Raiders stopped the Crusaders’ offense on fourth down in their own territory, they attempted to put themselves up by three scores on the ensuing drive, but Ritts was intercepted by Joe Jamison near midfield to preserve the 14-0 score at halftime. By early in the fourth quarter, a quarterback sneak by Christian Veilleux and a field goal by Tristian Vandenberg had cut the St. Francis lead to four.

The two squads exchanged the ball on the next few drives, as neither defense would yield a score. However, the Red Raiders converted on a well-executed run/pass option inside the red zone when Ritts pulled the ball down and found tight end Antonio Corsi over the middle for a six-yard touchdown to make the score 20-10.

“We executed that play beautifully,” Smith said. “If Ritts would have handed the ball off, it would have gotten stopped right there for no gain. We had to go for the win, and we wanted them to think that we would run the ball. So they brought everyone, and Corsi ended up being wide open over the middle.

“Jake’s a good football player and a tough kid. Since he’s only a sophomore, hopefully he has even better things coming for him and for us down the road.”

Again, the Crusaders wouldn’t wilt in the face of pressure. On the next kickoff, Jamison took the ball and returned it 95 yards to the end zone to bring his team within four points of tying the game. They would never get another chance though, as Vandenberg’s onside kick was recovered by St. Francis’s Anthony Gomez – leading to the Red Raiders running down the clock to preserve the 20-16 victory.

“The whole time (Jamison) returned that kick, I was thinking ‘we’ve got to cover so much better than this,'” Smith said. “With the score being so close, we knew that it would have been even closer had that onside kick worked. We knew it was coming, and our hands team did a good job recovering the kick.”

St. Francis advances to the New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association championship game, which will be played against an opponent who is still to be determined. The contest will take place in either New York City or Long Island on Thanksgiving Weekend, or the following weekend.

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