Elmira took down the state’s second-ranked Class AA team last week. So what better way to eclipse that than by trying to beat the No. 1 team?
Blocking the Express’ path to the state championship game is a Rochester Aquinas team that is 11-0 and boasts one of the top-rated sophomore quarterbacks in the nation in 6-foot-3, 200-pound Jake Zembiec.
The Express was not fazed last week in beating Syracuse Christian Brothers Academy, 24-18, and this week has been no different in preparing for Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup on the artificial turf at Sahlen’s Stadium in Rochester.
“The whole year the kids have been doing a great job of refocusing,” Elmira coach Jimmy McCauley said. “They understand last week was a very big win in our community and in the history of Express football. But they understand the importance of the next game. You’re only as good as your next challenge.
“I think it’s going to be a great game and the kids are going to be prepared and they’re going to be excited.”
The Express, now in its third season after the teams at Elmira Free Academy and Southside combined, is trying to give the school district its first berth in a state football final. No Section 4 team has made it to the title game in the highest classification since the state tournament started in 1993.
Section 5’s Aquinas has won five state titles, all in Class A, including two under current coach Chris Battaglia. The most recent came in 2010, with Maine-Endwell stopping the Little Irish the next year in a semifinal.
Battaglia said 10th-ranked Elmira (10-0) is as good as any team Aquinas has faced, which says a lot given the strength of the Little Irish’s schedule. He said three things in particular impress him about the Express players: their physical style, how rarely they make mistakes and their level of effort.
“I’m totally impressed,” Battaglia said. “They’re a really good football team and they don’t have too many weaknesses. We’re going to have to play well to beat them.”
Although Zembiec has drawn interest from big-time programs such as Notre Dame, Georgia and Penn State, it’s far from a one-person show for Aquinas. The Little Irish is balanced on offense, with a running game that has produced more than 2,000 yards.
“It’s kind of similar to last week,” McCauley said. “They have a lot of athletes and they can throw the ball, they can run the ball. It’s more or less slowing them down, containing them, making sure our assignments are sound and making sure kids are in the right spot at the right time and making plays.”
Senior Luch Pietropaolo has rushed 155 times for 1,033 yards and 12 touchdowns, with Donato Clemente adding 380 yards and 11 touchdowns on 61 rushes.
Zembiec has completed 107 of 183 passes for 1,569 yards and 22 touchdowns, with five interceptions. Last week’s 48-34 quarterfinal win over Jamestown was one of the few times he has been called on to throw a lot, completing 20 of 35 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns.
Battaglia said the lopsided scores have kept Zembiec’s stats down a bit, but he said his quarterback “has a great arm” and throws the ball very well.
“He’s only 15 years old, but he’s a seasoned veteran now,” Battaglia said. “He’s played almost two years and he’s a really good player.”
Elmira’s pass defense rose to the occasion against CBA, limiting University at Buffalo-bound J.R. Zazzara to 13 completions in 27 attempts while intercepting him twice.
“We kind of gained some confidence last week with defending the pass,” McCauley said. “One thing that shoots out in my mind is sometimes the key to a good pass defense is a good surge up front. The (defensive) linemen have to get pressure on him and make him do things he doesn’t want to do.”
The Express’ running game can also help contain Aquinas’ offense by staying on the field, something Elmira has been able to do all season even with running backs Eli Thomas and Jerry McPeak both breaking off numerous long touchdown runs.
“Point of emphasis is controlling the game and running the ball and having a great line up front,” McCauley said.
Thomas, a senior, has carried 122 times for 1,191 yards and has a total of 28 touchdowns. McPeak, a junior, has 161 carries for 1,469 yards, with 17 rushing touchdowns and two receiving.
Kevin Snyder, the fullback in the double-wing attack, is also a threat up the middle. Senior quarterback Rasean Brooks seldom throws but has tossed touchdown passes in both postseason games.
With the misdirection and the high level of execution, Battaglia said Elmira’s offense is tough to contain. Aquinas counters with a defense that has allowed more than one touchdown only twice in 11 games.
“First of all, just because it’s an offense we never really see it’s very difficult to duplicate,” he said. “Second, they do it very well, which makes it more difficult.”