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Bosco’s Corner: Prep-Cross is always a good game

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The great rivalry continues.

High school football is never quite as good as this promises to be. On Friday night two storied programs, St. Francis Prep and Holy Cross, will take the field at St. John’s University for their annual match-up and this one is shaping up to be a doozy.

Both teams are coming off tough losses, St. Francis to Monsignor Farrell and Holy Cross to Moore Catholic. It may be too early in the year for must-win games for these two teams, but both could use a victory.

The longstanding rivalry, which dates back to the early 1970s when St. Francis Prep relocated from Brooklyn to Fresh Meadows — just down Francis Lewis Boulevard from Holy Cross — took a one-year hiatus in 1998, when the Catholic High School Football League power ratings system prevented the match-up from happening.

But the game has been a staple year after year and remains the marquee match-up in Queens.

“It’s a neighborhood rivalry where basically the kids all know each other,” said St. Francis Prep coach Vince O’Connor. “You have that community or intimate situation. It’s a longstanding rivalry and it is always a good one.”

Last year’s match-up, held the weekend prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, saw Holy Cross edge its rivals to the south by a 20-14 margin. It was the third consecutive win for the Knights in the annual affair.

During its heyday, the rivalry drew thousands of fans. At the first such game I ever covered between the two schools, some 13 years ago, St. Francis Prep came out on top, 34-6, at a capacity-filled Flushing Memorial Field (when they had the old concrete stand). It was a standing-room-only affair, as the picture I dug out of the archives attests.

Marco Battaglia, who spent several years in the NFL, most recently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this season, scored a touchdown in the game.

Since then, it was all Terriers throughout much of the 1990s. Finally, after years of domination by St. Francis, which had won every game between the two schools for 14 years, Cross broke the losing streak in dramatic fashion three seasons ago with a 39-0 blowout victory.

The game, which was the first night game between the two schools, propelled Cross to a successful season and an appearance in the elite ‘AAA’ playoff semifinals. The opposite was true for St. Francis, which went on to a losing record and lost in the second-tier ‘AA’ playoffs.

Two seasons ago Holy Cross won its second straight blowout win over St. Francis, 35-10. But 2000 was not an overwhelming success for either team, as the Knights lost in the ‘AAA’ quarterfinals and St. Francis fell in the ‘AA’ championship game.

Last year saw a reversal of fortunes, as the Knights won the highly anticipated season opener, 20-14, stopping St. Francis from tying or winning the game in the final minute deep inside Cross territory. But that proved to be one of only a few highlights for the Knights last year.

The team eventually lost in the ‘AA’ semifinals.

St. Francis Prep, on the other hand, played well enough against Cross to build on the effort, and eventually rode a wave of confidence to the ‘AAA’ championship, when the team fell to the St. Anthony’s Friars.

Holy Cross coach Tom Pugh acknowledged the importance of the game as far as the players on both sides were concerned.

“It’s still the Prep-Cross game,” he said. “For the kids it’s a big game. Prep is always tough. That’s our rival.”

But for Pugh, whose team brings a 1-1 league mark into the contest, the game is important for other reasons. Following St. Francis, the Knights will have to face the always tough Mount St. Michael Mounties followed by a date with the Monsignor Farrell Lions. After that is a date with Fordham Prep before closing out the league slate against a much-improved St. Peter’s team from Staten Island.

“They’re all tough games, they’re all important,” Pugh said.

One thing to watch in this year’s edition of the Prep-Cross game is the Knights’ offense, which is led by quarterback Dan Meara, who has shown vast improvement over last year. Most of the credit, Pugh said, goes to his new offensive coordinator, former NFL standout from Bayside High School, Ronnie Harmon.

St. Francis Prep features the running of tailback Natale Modica and the senior leadership of quarterback Peter Mazzurco. Prep has always been a team that likes to grind it out and this year is no different, though O’Connor seems more willing to pass these days with Mazzurco at the helm.

Both defenses always play each other tough, no matter how lopsided the score. The tough play of both schools has also been a trademark of the series.

And while school spirit may not be what it once was — no bus burning, no graffiti scrawled — for the players the game is as big as it ever was, which is really all that matters.

Some of these kids take the same bus to school every day. And come Monday one school will have the bragging rights, for a year at least.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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