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St. Francis reaches final with dramatic OT win

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A classic battle between the Iona Prep Gaels and St. Francis Prep Terriers Saturday evening came down to one play. A season’s worth of hard work and the right to play for the CHSFL ‘AAA’ championship would be decided on a two-point conversion attempt by Iona in double overtime.

Trailing 28-27, the Gaels called on running back Vinny Christoforo for the win, but lineman John Kay made a game-saving tackle at the one-yard line to preserve the victory at the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. The ending touched off a wild celebration on the field as the Gaels looked on in shock.

“This win was huge,” Kay said. “It was the biggest game of my life.”

The Terriers (6-3)advance to the championship game for the first time since 1995 to face top-seeded St. Anthony’s (9-1) Sunday at 3 p.m. at Hofstra University. The Friars crushed Holy Trinity, 38-7, earlier in the day to advance to their third straight title game.

“When Kay grabbed [Christoforo] and brought him down to the floor, it was the greatest feeling in the world,” St. Francis quarterback Peter Mazzurco said.

The Terriers forced the second extra session on a hard-to-believe touchdown by Mazzurco. Needing a two-point conversion, Chris Zambrano rushed left, but was swarmed by Iona tacklers at the two. Incredibly, he flipped the ball to his quarterback before hitting the ground. Mazzurco walked into the end zone to the disbelief of Iona.

“He was down at the 2-yard line,” Iona head coach Jeff Napolitano said. “The refs took the game right out of our hands. It wasn’t meant to be.”

“I was nowhere near down,” countered Zambrano, who finished with two touchdowns and a game-high 58 yards on 20 carries.

The Gaels (6-3) nearly won the game when Christoforo bounced back from a poor regulation performance to start overtime with a four-yard touchdown run. After a penalty on St. Francis, Iona elected to forgo the extra point and go for two points. This time it worked, as quarterback John O’Neil scored on a keeper to make the score 21-13.

The Terriers' defense was flawless for three quarters, shutting down the Gaels’ strong passing attack. O’Neil, the league’s top-rated quarterback, was out of synch most of the game as the Terriers blitzed him relentlessly. In the first, O’Neil was chased out of the pocket and stripped of the ball by John Cazilas. He also threw an interception to Thomas Santagato late in the second while trying to avoid the rush.

“When you let [O’Neil] out of the box, usually you’re in trouble,” St. Francis head coach Vince O’Connor said. “We did a good job containing him [for three quarters].”

O’Neil finally came to life in the fourth. He completed a critical 16-yard pass on fourth-and-12 to move the ball to the Terriers’ 29. He completed another fourth down pass to R.J. Carbone for a five-yard touchdown at 8:37. The play stunned St. Francis and suddenly Iona had momentum.

St. Francis went three-and out-on its next possession and the hot-handed O’Neil promptly led the Gaels on a 10-play, 62-yard scoring drive, completing six passes along the way. The final completion, a 22-yard touchdown strike to Carbone, came with 52 seconds left in the game on yet another fourth down play.

As the Gaels celebrated, Brian O’Shea missed the extra point to force the memorable overtime. It took St. Francis kicker Adam Tanalski off the hook. He too uncharacte­ristically missed an extra point after the Terriers’ first touchdown.

The first half was a defensive struggle until Mazzurco lofted a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jason Philip at 5:26 of the second for a 6-0 lead. Philip beat the single coverage of Todd Debiak and made a falling catch at the right pylon. Zambrano rumbled for a total of 25 yards on the only other five plays of the drive.

St. Francis increased its lead to 13-0 on what has become its trademark, turning a turnover deep in enemy territory into a touchdown. Kay recovered a fumble at the Gaels’ seven, leading to a Zambrano one-yard touchdown dive at 2:20 of the third.

Earlier this season, the Friars defeated the Terriers 32-7. The Terriers have not lost a game since, playing opportunistic football to reel of six consecutive wins. If the streak continues one more week, they’ll have their first ‘AAA’ championship since 1990.

Reach contributing writer Adam Martini by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 7:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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