By CHUCKIE MAGGIO
The Pittsford Panthers had several opportunities to close the gap in Friday’s Section V Class AA football semifinal, but getting the ball back on a muffed punt may have been the biggest.
McQuaid dropped and lost the punt around midfield with 10:36 left in the game. The Jesuit Knights’ formidable offense did not score in the third quarter and the defense was facing a halved field in a two-score, 20-7 game.
The Jesuit Knights responded as championship defenses do, as that unit had all evening. They tackled ballcarrier Lavontae Bonds for a loss of two on first down. They stopped Bonds for another two-yard loss on second down. The Panthers went with Bonds yet again on third down; McQuaid stopped him for no gain.
Pittsford, forced to punt just two minutes after they recovered the last one, almost had some more special teams magic in them when McQuaid bobbled the fair catch. This time, the Knights held on. Pittsford wouldn’t see midfield again and McQuaid won by the same 20-7 score.
“It was huge,” McQuaid coach Bobby Bates said of the crucial stop. “That was huge that they got us the ball back and we were able to establish a little bit of a drive and get enough first downs that we could take a couple knees and run out the clock. Just a tribute to our defense and the way they played all night and how they’ve played all season.”
The Knights allowed fewer than 100 yards of total offense in a dominant performance. The second half was completely scoreless, but keeping the Panthers off the board buoyed them to the sectional final, where they’ll either face long-time rival Aquinas or red-hot Hilton next Saturday.
One of the most commonly heard directives on the McQuaid sideline is the Knights’ coaches imploring the defense to get the offense the ball back as soon as possible.
“Get off the field! Get off the field!” the staff yells. More often than not, the players comply; McQuaid has allowed just 35 points in its last four outings.
Jordan Brongo led the Knights in tackles (nine) and sacks (two). Will Teresi recorded six tackles, while Quinn Bergeron added five.
“Our defense just plays with a lot of grit, a lot of tenacity,” Bates commented. “To see them come out and play, the whole game… they were very resilient. I’m just really proud of the way they play, and fly to the ball and gang tackle people. Really proud of our defense.”
The only points for the first 21 minutes were produced by the foot of Nick Woods, who drilled two in the second quarter. On the Knights’ next drive, however, Woods only needed to add an extra point. McQuaid broke through with 2:38 until half, when junior Joe Cairns found senior Casey Howlett for a 25-yard touchdown on third and four.
Howlett’s grab opened the floodgates for the first and only time in the game.
Pittsford returned the ensuing kickoff to McQuaid’s 46-yard line, keying a quick scoring drive capped by Caleb Arena’s goal line rush with 51 seconds left in the second quarter.
McQuaid, faced with a less-than-one-minute drill, answered in just 43 seconds when Cairns fired a touchdown pass to an open Brongo in the middle of the red zone with eight seconds left until the break. The TD was part of a 9-of-14, 190-yard performance from Cairns.
Howlett had four receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown, while Brongo tacked on two catches for 52 yards and his score. Jack Miller’s one reception went for 57 yards to add to 80 rushing yards on 19 carries. Jack Beauchamp ran six times for 54 yards.
“Joe’s just a very solid, solid kid,” Bates remarked of his quarterback. “He’s a very solid quarterback, manages the game well, understands the concepts that we’re trying to run and what the defense gives us. I think Joe’s very zoned in and locked in to what his role is and works the scheme very well.”
The Knights are one win away from their first sectional football title in 41 years. They have made their sectional run without injured star running back Andrew Passero, while wide receiver Josh Gaddy didn’t play Friday either, adding another layer to their success.
“Being a part of a team, the next guy’s gotta step up and do his job and fill that role,” Bates said. “When a player goes down with an injury, you’ve just gotta step up for the next one and go with him.”