I don’t think there’s any doubt that had Aquinas Institute’s 2014 season not been sacked so unfortunately for unwittingly using an ineligible player in the playoffs, we’d be witnessing the San Francisco 49ers of local schoolboy football.
The Little Irish captured their second state title in a span of three seasons on Sunday to close out the Jake Zembiec Era, and by dispatching of Saratoga Springs of the Albany region by the score of 44-19 made it easy on historians to place this Aquinas club in the pantheon of best teams ever.
What a show that was. In the process, Aquinas showed us how motivation can turn into determination can turn into celebration. They showed us what it truly means to be a team. To be a family.
And while the Little Irish’s record seventh state football championship will only add fuel to the contentious debate over allowing private schools to compete in public school playoffs, this is a good thing for Section V when it comes to attracting college scouts to the area.
A year ago, sectional and state sanctioning bodies determined that Zembiec should not have been allowed to play in a first-round playoff win over Pittsford. While the community debated the interpretation of confusing return-to-play rules after an injury, a judge ultimately decided the Little Irish must forfeit.
Those most affected were the seniors, whose high school careers were ended, not on the field, but in a courtroom. But they were not forgotten.
“It motivated us to win for them,’’ linebacker Jamir Jones told my colleague James Johnson. “Running through the locker room there was a sign with all the seniors’ names on it that were kicked out (of the postseason last year). It just reminded us that we had to do it for them.’’
They did it incredibly well and added an exclamation point in running their record to 13-0 against a Saratoga Springs team that was no pushover, having entered the game 11-0 and regularly running up 40-point scores themselves.
It’s absolutely correct that coach Chris Battaglia, in his 10th season, had talent to work with. So did Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick and Marv Levy.
Aquinas’ roster of 26 seniors includes at least five that will be playing top-tier Division I college football next fall. They include Zembiec (Penn State), Jones (Notre Dame), wide receiver Earnest Edwards (undecided), linebacker Taylor Riggins (Syracuse) and lineman/long snapper Conrad Brake (walk-on invitation to Pittsburgh).
But if talent meant automatic victory, the Buffalo Bills would be 11-0 instead of 5-6. It takes a special coach and staff to push the right buttons, keep players focused.
“People are right, I do have great players,’’ Battaglia said. “My job is to stay out of the way and let them play.’’
Boy did he let them. On the second play of the game Sunday, Zembiec launched a perfect 75-yard touchdown strike to Edwards. It was the beginning of a maroon-and-white colored tidal wave that didn’t stop until Aquinas led 44-0 after three quarters.
Zembiec would finish with three touchdown passes to Edwards, who added a fourth on defense. Jones had 10 tackles and a sack.
We now look forward to watching Zembiec at Penn State where he’ll attempt to return that once proud program to prominence. How happy do you think Nittany Lions coach James Franklin, in attendance at the Carrier Dome, was watching his prize recruit throw for 462 yards and four scores overall on the biggest stage of the season?
The 6-3, 210-pound Zembiec ended his prep career as the Section V leader in career touchdowns with 76 and yardage with 6,375, and, mind you, his junior season was shortened by that broken left wrist. His 37 TDs and 3,030 yards as a senior are single-season Section V marks. He truly was a generational player.
As for the longstanding private vs. public debate, you can bet that public school superintendents will seize upon Aquinas’ latest championship — and by a lopsided score — and use it for their argument to ban private schools and their ability to attract students regardless of geographic bounds from postseason play.
But just for the record, two of the Little Irish’s closest games, against Hilton (by seven points) and Rush-Henrietta (by three points), came in the sectional round against public schools, which speaks well for Section V. And don’t forget Aquinas survived Liverpool of Section III, 17-16, thanks to a blocked extra point.
Before the private vs. public rhetoric resumes, I sure hope the adults out there can let Aquinas enjoy the moment for just a bit.
These players — these kids — achieved their goal of an undefeated state championship season, the seniors doing that for a second time. I wouldn’t care if Jim Kelly was the quarterback, that’s an astounding accomplishment and worthy of our applause. They represented themselves with class and did our city proud.
Bottom line: Battaglia and his program have put Rochester on the scholastic football map, the Little Irish cracking USA Today’s Super 25 national rankings. College scouts that come see Aquinas play in the future may just spot your son on the other team or rate him higher by how he performs against the best. Remember that before you vote to kick them out of the post-season.