The day before Stepinac played for the CHSAA state championship, the offense met with coordinator Joe Spagnolo. At one point, Spagnolo turned to address T.J. Morrison, but the not-so-shy senior quickly cut off his coach.
It was his time to speak up about stepping up, and Morrison meant every word of it.
“I told him, ‘Coach, I already know what you’re going say,’ ” he said. “I looked at my teammates and said, ‘We know (quarterback) Tyquell (Fields) is hurt. If you get the chance, you have to step up and get the job done.’ For me, it was my job to show him that I was there for him.”
On offense, on defense, and whenever it mattered most, Morrison lived true to his word. The three-year starter played his best football at the very end, snaring two interceptions in the CHSFL final and snatching four touchdown catches from the hobbled Fields in the state final.
The Crusaders finished a perfect 12-0 because they were stocked with talent, but the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Morrison was their playmaker, especially in the clutch. That emphatic finish earned Morrison the Westchester/Putnam player of the year award.
“He wants to be the best all the time,” coach Mike O’Donnell said. “In the championship games, he wanted to win so bad. He carried the team on his back with the four touchdowns. He wasn’t leaving Buffalo without winning.”
Stepinac had been largely unthreatened up until its last two games. That included wins over Newburgh and Iona Prep to open the season that were played without Morrison, who had a lingering back problem that forced him to miss the entire preseason.
“I felt like I was at rock bottom,” Morrison said. “When I was watching them train during the summer, they were struggling and I said, man, I would love to struggle with them.”
He had that chance the following week against Holy Cross and Morrison began to make an impact immediately.
He had long been almost exclusively a starter at cornerback, but he slowly bucked the Crusaders’ trend of stashing players on one side of scrimmage or limiting their reps on both. While still playing on defense, Morrison gradually carved out his niche on offense. He caught 35 passes for 525 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Morrison had two of his five interceptions in Stepinac’s 20-12 defeat of Cardinal Hayes in the CHSFL final despite moving to safety during the game when Jay-Char Howell suffered a knee injury. He then stayed at the position the following week and also caught 10 passes for 204 yards and the four touchdowns as the Crusaders beat St. Francis 42-28 to win their first state title.
“We were very banged up with Tyquell injured and unable to run at all,” O’Donnell said. “That took a large portion of what we do on offense out of the playbook. Tyquell definitely looked toward T.J. during the game. We had five starters down against St. Francis. T.J. moved to safety and basically didn’t come off the field.”
“That was the highlight of my high school career,” said Morrison, who played on the only two outright CHSFL champions in Stepinac history. “Going into the Hayes game, I was zoned in. I knew I had to perform at the top of my game and I knew it would be a great way to end my career. I knew I was going to give everything I had.”
That determination has served Morrison well in the eyes of recruiters. With 10 Division I offers, he is, according to O’Donnell, the most sought-after Crusader since Eric Ogbogu in 1993.
Ogbogu landed at Maryland and then the NFL. After he was wowed by a visit there last week, Morrison has his own announcement: He has committed to play for Stony Brook and will reunite with former teammates Gavin Heslop and Damarcus Miller.
Morrison doesn’t exactly plan on being anyone’s understudy.
“His athletic ability is very high and he can probably play offense or defense or return kicks at the next level, which is very unusual,” O’Donnell said. “He will walk on the field and is going to want to play right away. That is his competitiveness.”
Coach of the year: John Castellano, Westlake — In his first year at Westlake, Castellano led the Wildcats to their first Section 1 championship since 1983 and their first of the state-playoff era. They won seven straight after a 2-2 start and that improvement resulted in a Class B title and a victory over Section 1 adversary Marlboro in the state quarterfinals. Westlake finished the season 9-3.
The rest of The Journal News first-team all-stars:
QB — Tyquell Fields, Sr., Stepinac
RB — Jibril Kapadia, Sr., Dobbs Ferry
RB — Nick Santavicca, Sr., Yorktown
WR — Rashon McNeil, Sr., New Rochelle
WR — Christian Nigro, Sr., Iona Prep
WR — Andrew Schultz, Sr., Eastchester
OL — Khaleb Celaj, Sr., Stepinac
OL — Dylan Cohen, Sr., New Rochelle
OL — David Harris, Sr., Stepinac
OL — Patrick Hull, Sr., Rye
OL — Darail McCormick, Sr., Iona Prep
ATH — Lou Filippelli, Sr., Byram Hills
ATH — Hunter Keech, Sr., John Jay
DL — Malcolm Koonce, Sr., Stepinac
DL — Antonio Rogliano, Jr., Eastchester
LB — Mat Bruno, Jr., Rye
LB — Daniel Negron, Sr., Stepinac
LB — Dean Nigro, Sr., Iona Prep
LB — Chase Pratt, Sr., Rye
DB — John Arcidiacono, Sr., Eastchester
DB — Michael Rolfe, Sr., Scarsdale
DB — Keelan Thomas, Sr., New Rochelle
DB — Ryan Wolitzer, Sr., Rye Country Day
ATH — Donovan Brunson, Sr., White Plains
ATH — Elijah Ngbokoli, Sr., Hackley
K — Liam Butler, Sr., Stepinac
QB — Greg Powell, Sr., New Rochelle
RB — Jared Baron, So., New Rochelle
RB — Kwashon Correa, Sr., Carmel
RB — Antonio Giannico, Jr., Stepinac
WR — Jesse Brown, Sr., Stepinac
WR — Jackson Rieger, Jr., John Jay
OL — Joe Costella, Sr., Yorktown
OL — Donte Farquharson, Sr., Ardsley
OL — Constantine George, Sr., Putnam Valley
OL — Billy Grossman, Sr., Rye Country Day
OL — Jeff Lefkowitz, Sr., Horace Greeley
ATH — Winston Britton, Jr., Hackley
ATH — Emerson Genovese, Sr., Mamaroneck
DL — Tyler Cohen, Sr., New Rochelle
DL — Jack Drillock, Sr., Pleasantville
LB — Amari Bilal, Jr., Woodlands
LB — Greg Alfieri, Sr., Westlake
LB — Jordan Gunther, Sr., Stepinac
LB — Stephen Nicholas, Sr., Scarsdale
DB — Chris Corrado, Sr., Tuckahoe
DB — Zach Evans, Sr., Harrison
DB — Jay-Char Howell, Sr., Stepinac
DB — Jayson Prince, Sr., New Rochelle
DB — Scott Weaver, Sr., Yorktown
ATH — Christian Donahoe, Sr., Mahopac
ATH — Anthony Sardo, Sr., Westlake
K — Santi Mascolo, Sr., Rye
Kevin Aguilar, Sr., Port Chester; Jordan Artope, Sr., Hen Hud; Tommy Avery, Sr., White Plains; Nigel Bailey, Sr., New Rochelle; Marty Bailey, Sr., Fox Lane; Jose Boyer, Jr., Yorktown; Wendell Brand, Sr., Sleepy Hollow; Sam Brandeis, Jr., Blind Brook; Matt Catalano, Sr., Brewster; Joe Cavaciuti, Sr., Mahopac; Justin Cavallo, Jr., Yorktown; Will Cohen, Sr., Fox Lane; Will Cotter, Jr., Hackley; Malik Crawford, Sr., Stepinac; Kyle Cristello, Sr., Ossining; Hadi Darvish, Sr., Dobbs Ferry; Robinson DeLaCruz, Sr., Stepinac; Ryan Duffy, Sr., Westlake; Matthew Farber, Sr., Rye Country Day; Mike Ferrara, So., Valhalla; Bill Flatow, Sr., Mamaroneck; Jack Guida, Jr., Brewster; Jason Holland, Sr., Somers; Nick Jarosz, Sr., Lakeland; Aldo Kaczmarkiewicz, Sr., Somers; Johnny Khym, Sr., Ardsley; Richie Kirwin, Sr., Saunders; Nick Lancia, Sr., Fox Lane; Andrew Liskin, Sr., Scarsdale; Peter Matt, Sr., Mamaroneck; Dillon Morley, Sr., Irvington; Michael Nannariello, Sr., Harrison; Anthony Napolitano, Sr., Bronxville; J.J. Pasqualone, Sr., Valhalla; John Plimpton, Sr., Briarcliff; Sean Price, Sr., Rye Country Day; Ian Ricketts Jr., Sr., Gorton; Paul Sacchetti, Sr., Westlake; Ki’Shyne Shipmon, So., Yonkers Montessori; Kevin Singletary, Sr., New Rochelle; Michael Smith, Sr., Hen Hud; Najee Smith, Jr., Dobbs Ferry; Will Snyder, Sr., Westlake; Ryan Sullivan, Sr., Carmel; Quinn Willman, Sr., Carmel.