By JOHN LIKANJE
BROCKPORT, N.Y. – This was it: the matchup the entire Rochester area wanted to witness again this season. After a classic at Frontier Field nine weeks prior that saw McQuaid defeat Aquinas for the first time in 13 years, both teams hoped to see each other again in sectionals. Their wish was granted. It came as little to no surprise considering these squads were the cream of the crop in class AA and combined for a 17-1 record coming into Saturday’s matchup.
The large crowd gathered at Eunice Kennedy Shriver Stadium witnessed another classic which yielded the same result: McQuaid defeated Aquinas again, 30-27, to win its second sectional title in program history and first since 1978.
“In one sense, we did this for all the teams that couldn’t do it in the past, including the team last year that was very talented,” senior running back Andrew Passero said. “Great group of guys that fell short in this game. But in another way, we kind of didn’t worry about that. We kind of focused on this season. We knew we were the best team in the class and came out and claimed it.”
“I’m just so proud of the way our kids played against them (Aquinas) and were resilient against them and just a real gritty effort,” McQuaid head coach Bobby Bates.
Trailing 27-22 midway through the third quarter, Passero wasted no time igniting the Knights offense with runs of seven and eight yards, respectively. Despite being pushed back for a one-yard loss, the senior tailback bounced right back with a six-yard run to put pressure on the L’il Irish defense. After another pair of unsuccessful carries, Passero finally found a seam and broke through for a 42-yard touchdown to give the Knights a 30-27 lead with 58 seconds left in the period.
Passero willed his way to 34 carries for 243 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. The senior tailback had three catches for 12 receiving yards as well.
“I knew we’d been waiting for this game ever since we lost last year,” Passero said as he battled through a hip injury that had been hindering him most of the season. “Even though I’m a little banged up, I couldn’t let that opportunity pass, so I just had to fight through it.”
“He’s a tough running back,” Bates said. “Andrew, he’s so gritty, so tough. He just needs a little seam and he gets through there.”
“He was very limited in practice this week. He moved around a little bit. We got him going. We made sure that he was getting the correct treatment. It was all building up to tonight. We wanted to make sure that he was as best as he possibly could be coming into tonight.”
Aldrin Wilson stepped up for the defense with two tackles, a quarterback sack and a fumble recovery for a 52-yard touchdown on the first possession of the game to give McQuaid a 7-0 lead.
Junior defensive back Xavier Rita had six tackles while Sam Perozzi added four along with a pair of interceptions.
The Knights defense shut out the L’il Irish in the second half and forced five turnovers – three interceptions and two fumbles. Bates’ defensive line has held their opponents scoreless in the second half of all three postseason games thus far.
For Aquinas, Tyler Szalkowski completed 19-of-31 passes for 263 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The junior quarterback completed his stellar season with 2,504 passing yards and 27 touchdowns.
Ulysees Russell hauled in 11 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. The junior wideout had a 42-yard pick-six to give the L’il Irish their first lead of the game, 20-14, early in the second quarter. This was the second straight year Russell had a receiving touchdown and a pick-six in the sectional final. The junior wide receiver finished with 1,117 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions in 10 games.
Will Benjamin had five catches for 104 yards and eight carries for 44 more along with two touchdowns. The sophomore tailback racked up 850 rushing yards, 695 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
McQuaid advances to the New York State Far West Regional next Saturday back at Brockport at 6:30 p.m. The Knights will face four-time defending champion Lancaster (VI), who defeated Orchard Park (VI), 23-17, Friday night.
“This season, every part of the team is strong,” Passero said. “We have no weaknesses and the coaching on this team is incredible.”