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High School Football: St. Francis shows passion, resolve in bouncing St. Mary’s in playoffs

Senior Jordan Zakroczemski busts into the open field as part of a 400-yard rushing effort from St. Francis in winning its Monsignor Martin playoff opener. (Photo courtesy of Heather Buccieri)
St. Francis made it abundantly clear Saturday with its performance to open the Monsignor Martin playoffs that the first seven games of this season are all but a memory. It is what can still be accomplished this season that’s taken precedent for a rejuvenated Red Raiders’ squad.

After going without a win in its first seven games, St. Francis is riding high on a three-game unbeaten streak, including running away with a 52-7 win in a MMAA quarterfinal at St. Mary’s, where earlier in the season the Red Raiders surprisingly lost by 26 points.

St. Francis running back Alex Misterman led an impassioned and greatly improved effort from the last time the two met in Week Six, as the senior rumbled for 357 yards and five touchdowns on 21 carries. The powerful back was also successful on all four rushes for two-point conversions. Running behind a young but maturing offensive line, Misterman very seldom could be stopped as he cruised through large holes and would-be tacklers.

“Earlier in the season, we didn’t come out and give it our all,” said Misterman, who on a similarly muddy field the game before this one ran for nearly 200 yards in helping St. Francis beat Timon. “Today, we came out, fired off the ball, did what we had to do and this time, we had a lot of passion. We’re playing for each other and not just ourselves. We’re playing for the name on the front of the jersey.”

St. Francis head coach Jerry Smith said the turnaround is a direct result of how much his players and staff care about one another and the desire they share to salvage the 2012 season. He noted that being able to beat the likes of St. Mary’s, Timon and Cardinal O’Hara by a combined 119-28 over the past three weeks can be attributed to continually working hard despite all of the disappointment, along with benefitting from being completely healthy, which never hurts, as well.

“It’s been a tough road from 0-7 to where we are now — it wasn’t easy living through what we were; it never is when you’re losing, but the kids inside our room and the coaches never gave up on each other,” Smith said. ‘We knew eventually if we care enough about each other we would be OK. We are OK. Quite honestly, the score the past few weeks has been inconsequential; what’s most important is that if you watch us, you’ll see there’s a different atmosphere and belief.”

The defense also saw a complete turn-around from the first time St. Francis played at St. Mary’s. Last time, Lancers’ junior standout Nick Vallone ran for nearly 300 yards and scored four times, but the Red Raiders benefitted on Saturday from some film study and having a better understanding of what makes St. Mary’s run game so successful. St. Francis limited Vallone to 63 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries and held St. Mary’s without a second half first down.

“Today, we had to get back at them. We didn’t play our best throughout this season and we just wanted to show them that we have a lot more. We believed in ourselves this time,” said senior Jarrett Dolegala, who halted the game’s opening drive with an interception and then book-ended the half with big plays, catching a 38-yard touchdown on a ball thrown over top of the defense by senior Brian Melisz on the final play of the second quarter.

“Our coaches got us looking at film and we looked at how they were blocking and their steps and what Vallone’s steps looked like. We really read that well,” Dolegala added.

Defending league champion St. Francis now gets another shot at a team that beat it soundly during the regular season. On a short week, the fifth-seeded Red Raiders will play top-seed Canisius in the MMAA semifinals Thursday, Nov. 8 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Led by one of Western New York’s top backs in junior Qadree Ollison, the Crusaders beat St.Francis 51-18 in Week Five and finished the regular season unbeaten at 9-0.

“What our legacy is now is how we finish the season,” Misterman pointed out. “We want to head to the championship. That’s our ultimate goal and that’s what we’re heading toward. We know how to get there. A lot of the kids on the team like Jarrett and myself are veterans who have played at The Ralph several times and we know what it takes. We’re just pushing everyone.”

By halftime, Misterman had almost 250 yards and ran for scores of 68, 10, nine and two yards. He would add an 83-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, before Devantie Campbell hit paydirt on a short run in the fourth quarter to cap the scoring. The running game went for 412 total yards behind a maturing offensive line.

“The fact that they blew up holes that you can drive trucks through was just phenomenal,” Misterman said. “I just read their blocks and did what I had to do, which was just run down the field and try not to get tackled. My goal was to play for them, because I know they’re playing for me. When they do well, I do well and the team does well.

While impressed with what Misterman accomplished, Smith couldn’t help but take notice of the growth of his offensive line, which consisted mostly of center John Sorgi, tackles Dylan Sager and David Santana and guards Ryan Zulawski and Dylan McDonald. Of the group, only Sorgi, a senior, saw time last year as six regulars from the line graduated.

“With the type of year we had, you can look at it and say we had five new starters on the offensive line and Alex paid the price for it for the first seven games. Well, they finally jelled and that’s what’s going on,” Smith said. “I think everyone can see that our line has been dominating and hopefully that continues. We have a real big test in a short week, which is fine. It’s better than watching everyone else play.”

Defensively, Dolegala added a team-leading 15 tackles to go along with that early-game interception. Safety Mike Miller came up with 10 tackles and nose tackle Adam Valenti made nine stops, three for losses, including a sack. Sager and Nick Weickle also made a pair of tackles for losses.

“The kids took it as a challenge from last game,” Smith said. “No team likes to be beat like they did to us, especially to be run on, because running the ball is more of a sign of manhood. St. Mary’s brought everything they had last time, but today we were just the better team.”

The Lancers may have ended the season with a jarring loss, but it can not take away from their accomplishments playing for the first time as a full league member after the MMAA became one division before the start of last season. St. Mary’s beat St. Francis for the first time since a 16-14 win in 1999 and played right with the three other large schools from the division in losses.

“One game doesn’t make or break your season,” St. Mary’s head coach Dave Hersey said. “It would have been nice to go to The Ralph — I think these guys played hard enough all season and deserved it, but my hats off to Jerry and St. Francis. They came here and really showed up. They’re playing good football and they were hungrier than us and got the job done.”
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