Was this really the way Birmingham Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa wanted to begin his final season?
Hey, this was 11-time Ohio state champ Cleveland St. Ignatius, with players so big they looked like they belonged on a Division II college roster. Their sideline was filled with so many players Rice would have been in trouble if a brawl broke out.
But St. Ignatius had no one who compared to either Alex Malzone or Jason Alessi.
This was Malzone’s first varsity start, and he was magnificent. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown Saturday to lead Rice to a surprising 29-20 victory in the Prep Kickoff Classic, but he was even better than those numbers.
He set the tone for the game in the first half, when he went 16-for-22 for 193 yards and a score.
The junior had to be that good, because Rice was not going to be able to run the ball against St. Ignatius’ massive defensive line and their outstanding linebackers.
He looked like a surgeon as he picked apart the secondary with precision.
“We knew what we had to do,” Malzone said. “We knew their cornerbacks were probably the weakest part of their defense and that’s what we tried to hit the most with short hitches, out-routes, keep them on the sidelines and we made some great plays.”
Corey Lacanaria caught 10 passes for 157 yards and Grant Perry grabbed nine passes for 104 as both seemed perfectly in tune with Malzone.
“I’ve been working with them all summer, running routes and stuff,” Malzone said. “I actually played with Corey when I was younger. Grant always runs great routes.”
Rice’s Damaris Woods caught a 17-yard pass to open the scoring with 2:06 left in the first quarter. After a defensive stop, Rice took the ball at its 20 on the final play of the first quarter and marched 80 yards before Brian Walker scored on a 1-yard run with 1:58 left in the half.
St. Ignatius answered immediately with an 80-yard TD pass, but Malzone hooked up with Lacanaria on a 45-yard gain to set up Alessi’s 31-yard field goal on the final play of the half for a 17-6 lead.
Rice, doing its best Novi Detroit Catholic Central imitation — but with some passes — had the ball for 11:48 of the 12-minute second quarter.
St. Ignatius is no slouch, but its wake-up call never came. Alessi returned an Ignatius punt 70 yards for a touchdown 32 seconds into the third quarter.
Then Alessi had to kick the extra point and kick off.
“Oh man, I was so tired,” he said, laughing. “I barely made the extra point and I got out and kicked off. I was huffing and puffing, but we got it done so it was all good.”
It was all terrific for Alessi, who added an interception to stop St. Ignatius’ second possession of the half and booted a 41-yard field goal for a 27-6 lead late in the third quarter.
Fracassa seemed surprised by the outcome, but not necessarily by Malzone’s performance.
“He’s pretty good,” Fracassa said. “I knew he was good, but he showed a lot of heart. That kid Alessi’s not too bad, either. He’s been doing things like that for the last couple of years.”
If Malzone continues to play the way he did Saturday, this could be a special ending to Fracassa’s career.
“I felt great; I felt calm,” Malzone said. “I’ve always been poised as a player and we’ve got good seniors behind us so it’s a great win. It sets up for us to have a great season and that’s what we hope to do.”