WHITE PLAINS – It only took one hustle play to improve the mood.
Very little went according to the script for Stepinac in the opening half. A string of costly penalties erased a pair of touchdowns. Inconsistent execution prevented the back-to-back CHSFL AAA champions from sustaining drives.
It was a frustrating start.
Everything changed when the Crusaders forced a Cornwall fumble on the second half kickoff. They were in the end zone four plays later and well on their way to a 28-12 win Friday in the school’s annual Joseph Riverso Memorial Game.
“We were waiting for a big play,” senior captain Antonio Giannico said.
Steve Ramos covered the loose ball and in a matter of 90 seconds, newcomer Jonathan Gomez bounced into the end zone from the 8-yard line. Stepinac was ahead 14-7 after Shane Rafferty made good on the PAT.
“We had to stop making mistakes, stop taking penalties,” Crusaders head coach Mike O’Donnell said. “We came out in the second half and turned things around. It was frustrating early. I’m hoping it was first-game jitters.”
Devonte Myles ended the first Green Dragons possession of the second half when he intercepted a tipped ball. The elusive Atrillieon Williams got loose four plays later and went 20 yards for a touchdown.
And just like that, Stepinac was leading 21-6.
“It’s a new team and in the first half we were coming together, seeing what we have,” Williams said. “In the second half, we got connected.”
The next Cornwall possession was a three-and-out that left the Crusaders with a short field. Giannico capped the drive when he burst through a hole in the middle and went 20 yards for a touchdown.
Player of the game: Stepinac has another established threat in Gomez, who transferred in from Sleepy Hollow and had a serious impact the first time he got on the field. The senior running back finished with 109 yards and one touchdown on 10 carries. He was not shy about dealing out punishment with the ball.
“We kind of knew what we had in Jonathan,” O’Donnell said. “We knew he ran hard, but we didn’t know he ran that hard because we really don’t hit much in practice anymore.”
Turning point: Forcing the fumble to start the second half and promptly scoring let the Crusaders relax.
Stat line: Stepinac quarterback Michael Nicosia connected with Sean Jasper for an 18-yard touchdown in the first quarter. … Giannico had 96 yards on 13 carries. … The Green Dragons were led by T.J. Gayle, who had 116 yards and two TDs on 21 carries.
Quotable: “I hope to be playing for a third championship,” Giannico said. “We have a lot of younger players in the lineup now and we have to keep reminding them about remembering what it takes to win, remembering how hard we have to work.”