St. Anthony's senior Frank Ruta scores in the third quarter...

St. Anthony's senior Frank Ruta scores in the third quarter of the CHSFL AAA state championship on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Credit: Michael P. Majewski

HAMBURG, N.Y. -- This was a comeback win for the ages. A never-quit scenario played out perfectly by the St. Anthony’s football team.

The Friars trailed by three touchdowns at the half and could not find any rhythm in an offense that averaged 44 points per game. And the defensive unit was manhandled by a massive St. Francis of Buffalo O-line.

It would have been too easy to quit and get back on the buses for the seven-hour ride home.

“We regrouped at halftime and made some necessary adjustments,” said St. Anthony’s defensive back Jaeden Jenkins. “We warmed up a bit, not much it was freezing, and challenged each other to be the best version of ourselves.”

Boy, did they ever.

St. Anthony’s scored 27 unanswered second-half points in the final 13minutes to come back and stun host St. Francis of Buffalo to capture the CHSFL AAA championship, with a 27-20 win on a frigid Wednesday night on the shores of Lake Erie in the northwestern part of the state. A crowd of more than 1,000 braved snow squalls and 52 mile per hour winds that sent the real feel into the teens.

St. Anthony’s (11-1), which has a CHSFL record 15 titles, made its first appearance in the state championship game. It was a memorable one.  

With 4:01 left in the game, the Friars had a fourth down and goal from the Red Raiders 2. QB Dante Torres went keeper left and followed Frank Ruta into the end zone to tie it at 20.  

Griffin Goldstein drilled the extra-point kick into a 35-40 mph wind for the 21-20 lead.

“[Ruta] set the edge, what a great block,” said Torres, who completed 12 of 20 passes for 123 yards. He was 5-for-5 for 54 yards in the second half.

The game’s final play was St. Francis QB Steve Otremba stepping up into the pocket from the Friars’ 24-yard line and zeroing in on his receiver in the end zone. As Otremba set to throw, Thomas Mackell stripped the ball from his grip and the final seconds ticked off the clock. Bedlam ensued as St. Anthony’s players charged onto the field to celebrate Long Island’s first state high school football championship.

“I got up field and he stepped up to throw and I smacked the ball out of his hands,” Mackell said. “Greatest feeling ever. I knew it was over.”

St. Anthony’s coach Joe Minucci said the halftime adjustments keyed the win.

“We weren’t ready, and we were getting smacked around in the first half,” Minucci said. “They went big on us on the lines, and we had to adjust. The weather was definitely a factor, but we got it cleaned up. It was a fantastic end, just fantastic.”

St. Francis went old school on the Friars in the first half, running the ball on 23 of 24 plays, and taking advantage of a short field for three touchdown runs and a 20-0 lead.

The Red Raiders were clearly unfazed by the brutally cold and windy conditions. They just powered forward for TD runs of 28 and 9 from halfback Ricardo Kidd and a 14-yard scoring run by Terrence Pendergrass, where he shook one tackle and carried three defenders into the end zone.

A turnover on downs, a blocked punt and a botched long snap on a punt led to the three scores.

On a night when the St. Anthony’s passing game was neutralized, the Friars went to the ground game.

The Friars climbed to within 20-14 on a Ruta 33-yard run and a Torres 4-yard run with 7:01 left in the game. St. Anthony’s Kenyon Miles then recovered an onside kick to set up the go-ahead score.

Ruta, the offensive game MVP, rushed 19 times for 138 yards and scored on touchdown runs of 33 and 30 yards.

His 30-yard TD run was for the final margin with 1:33 left setting up Mackell’s heroics.

“Our defense and special teams played a great second half to make the comeback possible,” Torres said. “Especially on a night like this where the weather was the coldest, windiest we’ve ever played in. It showed what we were made of, coming back to win. I’m so proud.”