By Larry Moko
The St. Mary Crusaders are hoping for their best effort of the season when the senior high school football playoffs begin Friday.
St. Mary (0-6) takes on the second-place Knights, at St. Thomas More, in one of three quarter-finals.
The other matchups have the third-place Bishop Ryan Celtics facing the sixth-place Cathedral Gaels and the fourth-place St. Jean de Brebeuf Braves tangling with the fifth-place Bishop Tonnos Titans.
The undefeated Cardinal Newman Cardinals receive an opening-round bye for ending up on top of the standings.
“It’s a whole new ballgame now,” Crusaders coach Nick Lazar said after St. Mary dropped a 34-14 decision to the visiting Celtics on Friday.
Lazar said his team played better the previous week. And that happened to be against their upcoming opponent, St. Thomas More.
“Unfortunately, this wasn’t our best game,” Lazar said.
One of the bright spots for the Crusaders was the play of tailback Tyrel Collins-Reid, who scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns. The first came on a 75-yard run from scrimmage and the second was an 85-yard kickoff return.
“He’s an extremely fast kid,” Lazar said of Collins-Reid. “He’s still learning how to play football. It’s been nice to see him progress.”
St. Mary has reason for optimism, particularly because of the school’s junior team. The junior Crusaders topped Bishop Ryan 42-31 for their third victory of the season – that after going six years without a win.
“It’s absolutely encouraging,” said Lazar, whose senior squad numbers only 18. “We work as one big program as a whole. We’re stepping in the right direction. We’re building. Kids are coming to school now wanting to play.”
Students from seven feeder schools were in attendance at St. Mary for the finale. There was also a pep rally and a performance by the Crusaders drum line.
Bishop Ryan opened the scoring in the senior contest on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Austin Papalazarou, who also finished the afternoon with two interceptions on defence. Starting quarterback Marc Fournier then gave the Celtics a 14-0 lead when he rushed for a 1-yard touchdown on the last play from scrimmage of the first half. A 32-yard scamper by Fournier followed by a 28-yard pass to receiver Michael Bonomo set up the major.
Bonomo later added a second touchdown on a 35-yard pass-and-run play.
Celtics defensive end/kicker Michael Fortino chipped in with an interception return for a touchdown, four converts and two field goals (from 26 and 37 yards). He also was involved in numerous tackles.
“It’s my first pick-six return,” said Fortino. “When I saw the quarterback drop back I stayed back and read him. The ball came my way, I tipped it and I took it back (from 30 yards). I’m a soccer player, so doing kickoffs and field goals are no problem for me.”
Celtics coach John Fleming says the players at practice sometimes compare Fortino to Houston Texans dynamic defensive end, J.J. Watt.
“(Fortino) is playing really well for us,” Fleming said. “He’s a big part of the team … a leader. We asked our guys to step up today and they did that. ”
The Celtics (4-2) have experienced an up-and-down season. “We started off 2-0,” Fortino said. “Then we had a rough middle. But by finishing with two wins in a row it’s great momentum.”
Elsewhere, the three-time defending HWCAA champion Cardinals travelled to Cathedral and defeated the Gaels, 28-7. Newman got two touchdowns by Clark Adams – one on the opening kickoff return. Nicholas Petermann and Justin Connolly added one touchdown apiece.
For Cathedral (1-5), quarterback Mason Brown tossed a 35-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass the Kareem Collins Samuels.
In the night game at St. Thomas More, the Knights (5-1) topped the Titans, 24-7. Tonnos finished with a record of 2-4.