The end looked a lot like the high school football season opener for Aquinas.
Highlights and touchdowns by Earnest Edwards. Video game passing statistics for quarterback Jake Zembiec. A defense so strong, the opposing offense did not get on the scoreboard until the fourth quarter.
Only this time, when the Section V champions left Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome Sunday night, they left with a second state championship in three years.
Aquinas left no doubt in the first half of the Class AA final and went on to defeat a high-scoring Saratoga Springs team 44-19 to finish the season with a 13-0 record.
“It’s an honor to have it in my senior year, knowing that they cut us off last year,” Edwards said. “It’s whatever (now), we got it in our last year.”
Edwards and Zembiec, who along with Aquinas senior linebacker Jamir Jones showcased that they are Football Bowl Subdivision college prospects, did not leave Syracuse with state playoff records, but the “Zembiec to Edwards Show” must be one of the all-time top performances in this round.
Box score: Aquinas 44, Saratoga Springs 19
Edwards was named the Most Valuable Player of the Game, after he scored four touchdowns, three on throws from Zembiec. The senior receiver who tight-roped down the sideline for one of his scores and wiggled past Saratoga defenders during another pass play, finished with 286 yards on five receptions.
“He’s a big-time player obviously,” Zembiec said. “He’s got some pretty scary talent, so when he’s hot and he’s feeling it, he’s dangerous. You saw that today, on the biggest stage of the season.
“Hopefully, he picks up a few more (college athletic scholarship) offers, he’s really an underrated player. He’s been huge for us this season.”
Edwards scored four touchdowns inside the Carrier Dome back on Sept. 5, when Aquinas opened the season with an exclamation point-type win over Syracuse Christian Brothers Academy, 33-20. Like that game, Edwards led the rush to put the state final out of reach for the Section II champions.
“I don’t think it’s just this place,” Aquinas coach Chris Battaglia said. “If we get Earnest the ball in space, you see what he can do. Last week (versus Liverpool during the state semifinals), we had some issues with getting him the ball in space.
“It got hard, but come on, that kid is unbelievable. He and Jake? People are right. I have great players. My job is to stay out of the way and let them play. That’s what I try to do, I don’t try to overcoach them, I let them play.”
Zembiec, named the game’s most outstanding offensive back, threw for 462 yards on 18 of 23 passing. James Franklin, Zembiec’s future coach at Penn State, was at the Dome to see it, including the touchdown strikes of 75 and 53 yards to Edwards, who turned a slant into another 60-yard score.
“Our kids played hard. We got beat,” Saratoga Springs coach Terry Jones said. “You know, if you are going to lose a football game, that’s what you want. You don’t want to make mistakes and walk off the field and say ‘If we only did this or done that.’
The state record for passing yards in a game is believed to be 581, during the 2013 Class D final. Josh Feyerbend of Unatego in Section IV (Binghamton region) also had a record seven touchdown passes in the game.
“We got beat today by a great football team, one of the best football teams I’ve seen in New York state.”
There is a list of Section V records, and Zembiec’s name will be at the top in some categories.
Zembiec finished with a section career record 76 touchdown passes in four seasons, including one cut short because of a broken wrist on his left, non-throwing hand. His 6,375 passing yards is another career record.
The 37 touchdown passes and 3,007 yards in 13 games are single-season records in Section V.
The defensive statistics for Aquinas in the state final were tilted somewhat, as the Blue Streaks scored all of their touchdowns in the final 7:07, as substitutes began to see action. One of those scores didn’t count against the Aquinas defense, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by Saratoga (11-1).
Aquinas senior defensive back Shemar Hayes snatched away a pass thrown into the end zone by quarterback Brian Williams early in the second quarter. The Blue Streaks already trailed 21-0.
The Aquinas defense did score, and it was Edwards at defensive back who did it, as he beat a teammate to a fumble in the end zone in the first quarter.
Aquinas led 7-0 after two plays from scrimmage, a 5-yard pass to Jones and the 75-yard connection for a touchdown between Zembiec and Edwards.
Saratoga Springs punted the ball back to Aquinas and then stopped the Section V champions on downs at the Blue Streaks’ 11. But on third-and-3 at the Saratoga Springs 18, Williams watched a handoff plop to the turf. There was a scramble, and Edwards was the one who got control of the ball in the end zone.
Saratoga Springs punted after three more plays on offense. Zembiec then put the ball into the air for Edwards for a touchdown on first-and-10 at the Aquinas 40. The score was 21-0 with 2:22 remaining in the first quarter.
T.J. Scanlon’s 1-yard touchdown run, a 9-yard scoring reception by Tyler Olbrich and a 26-yard field goal by Collin Cup helped balloon the score to 44-0 after three quarters.
“It’s always good to go out on top,” Jones said. “Sophomore year, it was a great feeling but this one is way better.”
This was a much more satisfying way for Aquinas to finish a season, compared to how 2014 came to a close after the Little Irish defeated Pittsford in a Section V first round playoff game.
Zembiec’s eligibility was called into question, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Section V said he should not have played in the postseason and a judge ruled in favor of the sanctioning bodies. Aquinas forfeited its playoff win and was out of the sectionals.
“It motivated us to win for them, running through the locker room there was a sign with all of the seniors’ names that were kicked out (of the postseason),” Jones said. “It just reminded us that we had to do it for them.”