For Mahopac resident Antonio Giannico and his Archbishop Stepinac High teammates it was a well-deserved celebration as the Crusaders grabbed hold of the Michael Cunnion Memorial Trophy Saturday night at Fordham University in the Bronx.
In front of a packed house with several thousand fans wearing Stepinac red, the Crusaders were able to hold on for a 20-12 victory over Cardinal Hayes in the Catholic High School Football League of Metropolitan New York Class AAA championship game.
“It’s such a great accomplishment to do this back-to-back, I’m speechless,” Giannico said during the celebration. “Second year in a row we’ve had a crowd like this and it’s incredible to play in front of them. It’s hard to hear on the sidelines when we’re trying to call a play it’s so loud. This just feels amazing.”
With the victory Stepinac improved to 11-0 on the year, and now the Crusaders get to take a road trip up to Buffalo to play in the CHSFL state championship game on Saturday, Nov. 28, against Saint Francis.
To get there, Giannico did his part all over the field on offense, defense and special teams to help Stepinac pull out the victory over Cardinal Hayes.
First, the junior running back did it on offense in the first half as he capped a Stepinac drive with a four-yard touchdown run to make the score 14-0. Giannico gave the credit to his offensive line in front of him, particularly David Harris (6-4, 315) and David Melendez (6-2, 250) on the touchdown run.
“Our offensive line did a great job up front,” Giannico said. “We had the momentum going at the beginning. Coach gave me the ball and I was able to run behind big Harris and Melendez and get in. A great feeling to score in a game like this.”
Archbishop Stepinac had defeated Hayes during the regular season by a score of 43-21, and this one was starting to look like another easy game for the unbeaten Crusaders in the first half. Quarterback Tyquell Fields got the Crusaders on the board first with a touchdown run, and then Giannico scored the second touchdown of the game for the Crusaders. Just before the half, Cardinal Hayes was driving, but Terrell Morrison came up with an interception for Stepinac and Liam Butler was able to kick a field goal with less than a minute to play in the half for a 17-0 lead.
The second half, however, would be a different story as Cardinal Hayes responded. This time it was the Cardinals coming up with the big turnover with an interception and a return down to the Stepinac seven-yard line. One play later quarterback Christian Anderson scored to cut the lead down to 17-6.
The Crusaders were able to respond with another field goal for a 20-6 lead, but once again the Cardinals would answer back. This time Anderson hooked up with Justin Covington on a long pass down to the Stepinac one-yard line and on the next play the score was 20-12.
Cardinal Hayes got the ball back with a chance to drive for the tying score, but now it was time for Giannico at linebacker and the rest of the Crusaders defense to stand tall to stop the drive.
After a sack and two incomplete passes, Hayes was forced to punt the ball as the Stepinac defense stopped the threat.
“Our defense, coach said all week they’re going to make plays and we have to make a stand,” Giannico said. “Our coaches did a good job preparing us for what we would see, and it happened to be just what we saw.”
When Stepinac took over on its own 22-yard line, everybody in the stadium knew who was going to carry the ball. Stepinac coach Mike O’Donnell put the ball in Giannico’s hands and he did the job.
Giannico busted loose on the next play, bowled over one Cardinal Hayes defender and gained 15 yards for a first down. Two more carries for Giannico and another Stepinac first down, and the Crusaders were able to run out the clock and hold on for the victory.
“I love those situations,” Giannico said of the final plays. “When coach puts the ball in my hands, I’m going to make a play for him.”
He made plays all over the field. On special teams, Giannico was the long snapper on punts, and he also recovered an on-side kick attempt by Hayes as the Cardinals were trying to get the ball back in the fourth quarter.
Now, Giannico and the rest of the Crusaders will try to make the plays for one more game as they hope to wrap up an undefeated season with a CHSFL state championship.