YORKTOWN HEIGHTS – In the quiet of the coaches’ room, a glass-enclosed space divided from screaming and dancing players, the only sounds were sobs. A red-eyed Lou DiRienzo squeezed Jonathan Saddler, the sophomore who moved to New Rochelle from Florida and now tried to thank his coach between each gasping breath.
“This is why I came here,” Saddler said.
That emotion spilled over for DiRienzo and his cast of emerging stars on Saturday after they sprinted to another Class AA championship. The top-seeded Huguenots won their first Section 1 title in three years, beating No. 2 John Jay-East Fishkill 44-25 at Yorktown High School.
New Rochelle senior Keelan Thomas rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 82 yards for another score to earn back-of-the-game honors.
“Before the game, he had tears. He was emotional,” Thomas said of his coach. “I said, ‘We have to win it for him.’”
The Huguenots (10-0) not only channeled that emotion, they advanced to the state playoffs for the first time since winning the program’s second state title in 2012. They will meet the Section 9 winner — Monroe-Woodbury or Newburgh — at 7 p.m. on Nov. 14 at Dietz Stadium.
“It’s not about the winning,” said DiRienzo, who won the section for the seventh time since 2000. “It’s not that I think it’s our birthright to be here. These kids work so hard, these coaches grind so much, that it’s an emotional thing for me. Football has always been a family thing for me. That’s just who I am. These kids work and they don’t realize the hours they log. They just go along like tin soldiers. But they and my coaches totally deserve this win.”
Countless contributors led to the achievement, especially on an offense that responded with a flourish each time John Jay (8-2) scored. In fact, after each of the four touchdowns allowed, the Huguenots scored one of their own.
Player of the game: Keelan Thomas, New Rochelle. The senior was electric all day, including on a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Thomas also had an interception, but the most eye-popping play in a game filled with them came on special teams. Thomas made sure John Jay’s euphoria after its first touchdown was short-lived when he took the ensuing kickoff 82 yards up the home sideline for a 21-6 lead.
Turning point: With John Jay driving and desperate to cut into a 24-6 deficit just before halftime, Ryan Schumacher zipped one to an open Travis Contreras at the goal line. Contreras bobbled the throw and Rashon McNeil not only recovered, he leaped over the receiver to snare an interception.
“He made one of the most athletic plays I’ve ever seen to come down with it,” Patriots coach Tom O’Hare said. “I was hoping we’d get another shot. We were inside the 20. It was a momentum killer, but the kid made an awesome play.”
Stat line: New Rochelle finished 7 for 12 for 137 yards passing. Greg Powell was responsible for most of it, but Saddler came in after Powell hurt his ankle and threw a 56-yard touchdown to McNeil. … In addition to 81 yards passing, Powell rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown. Jared Baron also had 64 yards and a TD on the ground. … Dylan Cohen recorded a pair of sacks. … Schumacher rushed for a pair of touchdowns and went 12 for 32 for 257 yards and two scores.
Quotable: “Keelan had a great game today. That’s like my little brother and he had an amazing game,” said McNeil, who arrived from Mount St. Michael with Thomas prior to last season. “We’re so happy. We transferred here and it’s one of the best decisions we ever made.”