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Canisius rides early lead to Monsignor Martin title

The Canisius Crusaders knew getting out to a quick lead in Sunday’s Monsignor Martin championship game was crucial against a talented St. Francis team.

Scoring two touchdowns just eight seconds apart to ensure their early first quarter advantage stayed in their favor the rest of the way may not have been what they drew up pregame, but it did the job to secure them a title.

Canisius controlled the game from the opening drive thanks in part to three touchdowns from receiver Nik McMillan, downing the Red Raiders 33-14 at Stransky Memorial Complex in West Seneca to be crowned champions of Monsignor Martin. It’s the Crusaders’ seventh title in ten years and their second in a row.

“Our plan was to start fast,” Canisius head coach Rich Robbins said. “We know St. Francis wanted to run the ball today so we thought if we could get a lead, that would make it tough on them.”

After going up 6-0 on the opening drive thanks to McMillan’s first score of the game, a 29-yard dime from quarterback Tyler Baker, a strip sack and recovery by Crusader lineman Malachi Charleston gave Canisius (4-1) ideal field position in Red Raider territory.

Then came the game-defining sequence.

A four-yard touchdown rush from Baker extended the lead to 14-0 off the takeaway. On the ensuing kickoff, a pooch kick that was mishandled by the Red Raiders (2-3) wound up in the arms of a Crusader to give them the ball right back. The very next play, McMillan broke free on a deep route and hauled in Baker’s pass before going untouched into the endzone for a 40-yard strike.

In a matter of eight seconds, the Crusaders took a 21-0 first quarter lead and a strangle hold of the game, and left St. Francis scrambling to find a response.

“That was huge, I don’t want to say it put them away early, but it kind of did,” said McMillan, who was named the game’s MVP, on the two quick scores. “It let them know we’d come to play with them, we weren’t playing no games.”

The junior duo of Baker and McMillan weren’t done yet. After St. Francis capitalized off a Canisius turnover with a four-yard Jimmy Scott touchdown run to make it 21-6 in the second quarter, on

the ensuing Crusader drive, Baker threw a jump ball on third-and-14 to his top target in the back of the endzone, and McMillan came down with it while being hounded by a Red Raider defender. The 13-yard score gave Canisius a 27-6 lead at halftime.

“We probably got the best connection in New York State, no funny,” McMillan said of his connection with Baker. “He throws it where it needs to be and I just do my job and go and get it.” McMillan tallied 105 yards on four receptions to go along with his three touchdowns, while Baker finished the day 14-for-20 for 192 yards and 50 more on the ground.

“[McMillan]’s the best receiver in the state and he showed that today,” Baker said. “He can catch anything … the guys say in practice, ‘yo, throw it up to Nik,’ and that’s literally what I do sometimes.”

While it was a tough day for the Red Raiders, a bright spot came in the fourth quarter when senior Noah Kunzman connected with receiver Aiden Thomas on a 49-yard touchdown strike, cutting the Crusader lead to 33-14. In the unique spring season, with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, just getting to this point was a feat in itself for St. Francis coach Jerry Smith.

“I told the kids I was very proud of what every one of them did to overcome the obstacles that occurred this year,” Smith said. “From being on COVID [pause], to off COVID [pause], to having guys not being able to play for us in the fall that changed the dynamics of the team … I’m proud of the fact we kept battling.”

With the season now over for both teams due to a lack of state championships, the focus now shifts

to August. After a long 18-month offseason, the quick turnaround will be something brand new to each program, with each’s mindset on getting back to the big game later this year.

“It’s been a long road and anytime you end it with a championship, it doesn’t feel so long anymore,” Robbins said. “We just went from the longest offseason in New York State history to the shortest offseason in New York State History … I made the point to the underclassmen already out on the field that we’ll take a couple weeks and we’re back at it. We’ve got a state and Monsignor Martin championship to defend.”

Photo Credits: Dave DeLuca

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