Aquinas Li’l Irish reign in Class AA

AQ’s James Jones (4) and Damon Montgomery celebrate during the Li’l Irish 21-14 victory over New Rochelle (I) in the NYS Class AA championship. (Photo: JOE BRADT)

By PAUL GOTHAM

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — For the eighth time in as many tries, the Aquinas football team claimed the New York State championship.

Unlike 2015, though, when the Li’l Irish dominated Saratoga Springs 44-19 or 2013 when they ran roughshod over Monroe-Woodbury 48-13, this effort required late-game heroics.

And the ability to finish.

“It’s just hard work,” Aquinas head coach Derek Annechino said after the Li’l Irish downed New Rochelle (I), 21-14 in the NYS Class AA final. “Perseverance by the kids, the coaches. The defense stepped up today, and the offense made plays when we had to make plays.”

Tyler Szalkowski capped a 12-play, 60-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Ulysees “Manny” Russell to secure the win.

“We just wanted to get it done,” Szalkowski said. “We were moving the ball, but we couldn’t finish. That drive was about finishing. The line put us on its back and drove us down the field.”

On third and goal from the five-yard line, Szalkowski found Russell in the right corner of the end zone.

“It was a slant and corner route to the back of the end zone,” the sophomore play caller explained. “They were running straight man coverage. Kobe (McNair) set like a pick and moved out his guy, so then he had the whole corner of the end zone. I just put it where he could go get it. He made a miraculous catch.”

 

Ulysees Russell capped a 12-play drive which took 6:42 with a four-yard touchdown catch. (Photo: JOE BRADT)

That Szalkowski and Russell could connect on the game winner was only made possible because of a pair of defensive gems from senior defensive back, James Jones.

Twice Jones intercepted passes deep in the AQ end.

“I just knew I had to make a play for my team,” Jones said. “I knew I had to contribute for the defense ‘cause the offense was struggling a little bit.”

Staked to a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter, Aquinas found itself having to hold off New Rochelle after a pair of Jordan Forrest touchdowns (one-yard touchdown rush late in the first half and five-yard rush early in the second half to tie the game).

New Rochelle threatened to take the lead in the third quarter when Jones stopped the Hugenots’ momentum, twice.

“Coach told us to stay deep all day,” Jones said. “All week he told us to stay deep. I read it, and I just went to go get the ball.”

Tyler Szalkowski completed six passes for 93 yards. (Photo: JOE BRADT)

Caron Robinson capped a five-play drive with a 16-yard touchdown on AQ’s first possession of the game.

Later in the second quarter, Robinson broke free for an 89-yard run to give the Li’l Irish a 14-0 lead. The senior finished the day with 161 yards on 17 carries.

“He’s the best player in the state,” Annechino said of Robinson who was injured for much of the season. “It’s a shame he didn’t have all 13 games to show it, but he is without a doubt the best player in the state.”

AQ’s eighth title is easily the most in New York with Chenango Forks, Maine-Endwell and Randolph trailing with five apiece.

“It’s the program,” Annechino said. “I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. There’s no one person that’s bigger than this program. It’s all the head coaches before me. It’s all the players. It’s one big group that works hard to get the job done. It’s about the program.”

Jones was named Most Valuable Player.

 

“He’s the most fantastic kid you’ll ever want to meet, so I couldn’t be happier for James,” said Annechino. “He’s a great kid, a great football player.”

“I’m happy that I’m able to add to the legacy,” Jones said. “Now I get to go down as a state champion at Aquinas.”

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