Maybe our idea of fun needs work, but let’s spark one of those debates for message boards, barber shops or commentary that goes back-and-forth between friends.
There is no way to know if we — or anyone else — are right, but let’s rank the top five Aquinas high school football teams from the past decade, on the eve of the team’s latest appearance in a state final.
POLL: Your top team?
Aquinas (12-0) faces Saratoga Springs (11-0) of Section II, the Albany-region, at 3 p.m. Sunday inside Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome for the Class AA championship. Let the “say what?” shouts begin. Win or lose, the 2015 Aquinas team that shares the No. 1 ranking in the state, is in this top-five.
Yes, the trip for Aquinas through the Section V tournament included more games that felt more like nail-biters than lopsided romps. Same with the state tournament semifinal against Liverpool. Maybe you don’t put much stock into Aquinas’ slot at No. 22 in the USA TODAY’s national rankings. And maybe four games against teams in Section V is not nearly enough of a sample for your list.
Let’s look at the talent. At least five players on the current roster are all but certain to be on the sidelines of teams in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision next year. Yes, this happens in boys lacrosse, but name another school in the area with that many football players headed to that level. In some cases, these are the teams with national or huge regional fan bases, like Notre Dame and Penn State.
The common link to all of these teams is Chris Battaglia, who is completing his 10th season as the Aquinas coach. Battaglia wanted no part of making these lists, so we will go ahead and take care of it, plus list the top players at Aquinas during this last decade.
1. 2010 State Champion:
This 13-0 team, for the most part, rolled through three Class A state playoff games, including 36-6 against two-time defending champion Sweet Home of Section VI (Buffalo). Aquinas topped Harrison 24-13 in the state final. The defense allowed 87 yards of offense to Victor during the sectional final. “They hardly let them get across the 50-yard line,” running back Mike Messina said. “We’re going to ride them the rest of the way.” Messina chipped in, as a state co-Player of the Year who ran for 1,571 yards with 19 touchdowns. Marc Pettrone (United States Military Academy at West Point) and Messina (Syracuse) played Division I college lacrosse. A junior named Jarron Jones was headed up the list of college football prospects at defensive tackle. Jahmahl Pardner (Pittsburgh/Towson State) also stuck with football. The roster included a professional baseball player, Chris Bostick, who was placed on the 40-man roster of the Washington Nationals on Nov. 19.
2. 2007 State Champion:
Five players from this team were considered among the top 22 players in Section V, when they were voted on to the Democrat and Chronicle All-Greater Rochester Team by coaches in the area. The images of defensive end Matt Jones chasing down smaller ball carriers during the Class A state final left a lasting impression. So did watching Aquinas opponents score 7, 0 and 12 points in three state playoff games. A dominant offensive line included not one, not two but three 300-pound players, AGR selections James Thomas and Rick Antelli among them. That offense didn’t throw much, and rarely needed to. Defensive back Todd Wingate, listed at 6-foot-1-inch tall and 200 pounds, intercepted six passes.
3. 2015 State Finalist:
It’s tempting to move this year’s team up to No. 1, if it can get past Saratoga Springs. Injuries have sidelined or slowed Aquinas starters most of the season, but that hasn’t resulted in a loss in 12 games. It’s largely about the quarterback today at almost every level of football, when it comes to offensive firepower. Senior Jake Zembiec is considered one of the top recruits from the area in at least 30 years. It’s a strong finish to his high school playing days: 33 passing touchdowns with a Section V single-season record 2,545 yards and counting. Zembiec will graduate early and move on to the Penn State campus in mid-January. We may also see senior linebacker Jamir Jones on televison, as part of the defense at Notre Dame. You can argue that no Aquinas player has been more versatile and still played at an all-state level. Division I schools also are interested in Earnest Edwards (24 touchdowns), who has scored a touchdown at the end of a run, kickoff return, interception and pass reception this season. Taylor Riggins has accepted a scholarship offer to play defense at Syracuse and Conrad Brake has been invited to become a long-snapper at Pittsburgh.
4. 2013 State Champion:
This team, which also finished undefeated, has familiar names, including some of the players we’ve mentioned as starters during their sophomore seasons. This was also the first season Aquinas was reclassified. Zembiec was named the Class AA state Player of the Year. Aquinas still had the familiar look of a running back providing the legs in the team’s offense, as Luch Pietropaolo ran for 1,218 yards with 15 touchdowns. Jamestown was the only team to top 21 points against Aquinas. Eight players were on the season’s AGR team.
5. 2011 State semifinalist:
There was talk of a repeat as Class A state champion, as Aquinas was ranked No. 1 in the state from the preseason to the postseason. Aquinas lost 19-16 to Maine-Endwell, however, as the Spartans of Section IV (Binghamton-region) were on the way to becoming one of the state’s most dominant teams. Aquinas junior running back Billy Lombardi shared the classification’s state Player of the Year award. The offense ran for more than 300 yards and with Cory Benedetto at quarterback, scored on two pass plays of 40 yards or more against Sweet Home during the state regional. The team’s defense allowed a total of two field goals in two sectional games.
CLASS AA FOOTBALL STATE FINAL
Matchup: Aquinas (12-0), ranked No. 1 in the state, vs. No. 3 Saratoga Springs (11-0, Section II).
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse University.
Admission: $10 each ticket, not including parking.
On the turf: Saratoga’s high-scoring offense versus the Aquinas defense seems to be the most intriguing matchup. Dakota Harvey (1,440 rushing yards, 23 touchdowns, a 250-pound senior at Saratoga, is an even larger ball carrier for Aquinas to deal with than Rush-Henrietta quarterback Jared Gerbino. Senior quarterback Brian Williams (1,305 passing yards, 17 touchdown passes/8 touchdown runs) may really be the player to keep under wraps in Saratoga’s spread offense. Can the Blue Streaks play keep-away from Aquinas with its ground game led by a good-sized offensive line? “You have to be as physical as they are,” Aquinas coach Chris Battaglia said. All of the close games Aquinas has had to win to reach this final may be useful, if Saratoga’s offense puts pressure on with production or the Section V champion’s offense gets off to a slow start.