Talk about a complete turnaround.
The Kellenberg football team went from last place in the CHSFL to Class AA champions in one season.
The Firebirds rode the arm and legs of junior quarterback Matt Sluka, who totaled 2,603 all-purpose yards, to an 11-0 record and the school’s first title since 1999.
“We had a group of seniors that refused to experience another terrible season and a young group of players coming up from a championship junior varsity that worked so well together,” Sluka said. “The chemistry was immediate and the guys put in the work. The senior class were leaders and the coaches did a great job putting all the pieces together.”
The transformation from 1-8 to a championship-caliber team became a reality when Sluka rushed for five touchdowns and threw for another in Kellenberg’s 54-19 win over Fordham Prep in the title game at Mitchel Athletic Complex.
“We allowed the most points and scored the fewest last year in our league,” Sluka said. “And this year we scored the most and allowed the fewest. That’s a complete team transformation.”
The turning point this season came in week six, when Kellenberg beat Fordham Prep in a showdown of 5-0 teams. The Firebirds won a back-and-forth affair, 35-26.
“We had such an athletic class,” Kellenberg coach Kevin Hanifan said. “We had beaten Xavier for the first time in 12 years and the guys really started to believe in themselves. The following week we beat a very good Fordham team.”
Sluka pointed to the team concept as the key to winning the school’s first Class AA crown.
“The offensive line was great,” Sluka said. “And we had incredible balance on offense. Guys were unselfish as everyone contributed from the line to the receivers blocking downfield.”
The offensive line included guards Brendan Whitehead and Kris LaFroscia tackles Thomas Cipolla and Brendan Higgins and center Patrick Harinski. Cipolla and LaFroscia return next year to defend the crown.
“They evolved over the season into a really strong unit,” Hanifan said. “We found the two juniors and they solidified themselves in those roles and played every snap from day one.”
Sluka, who played junior varsity as a sophomore, completed 57 of 93 passes for 984 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also rushed for 1,619 yards on 136 carries and scored 24 touchdowns. He made 32 of 40 point-after kicks to total 176 total points, third in the state in the CHSAA.
“Matt’s an unbelievable athlete,” Hanifan said. “He could run full speed, dial it down to a three-quarter speed, set up some blocks and make his move. He had unbelievable vision.”
A young backfield gave the Firebirds what they needed to complete the perfect season. Junior halfback Frankie Roder was a consistent performer as he finished with 809 yards on 120 carries and scored 15 touchdowns. Sophomore halfback Jordan DeLucia, who broke his jaw earlier in the season, returned for the first round of the playoffs.
“Jordan a 54-yard run for a score and a 63-yard touchdown reception in final against Fordham,” Hanifan said. “What a comeback.”
Kellenberg’s last title came in Class A in 1999 when the Firebirds’ Matt Main kicked a 27-yard field goal, his only field goal of the season, in a 43-40 win over Xavier in triple overtime.
This championship came with less stress as Kellenberg set school records for wins in a season with 11 and points scored with 413.
“Every week was the next biggest game,” Sluka said. “The mindset changed every week as we never took anything for granted. The atmosphere in school was fantastic as everyone was on board and supporting the team. We have to keep it going because now there’s expectations.”
ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP
CHSFL AA playoffs
St. Joseph’s by the Sea 28-6
Fordham Prep, 54-19