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  • Writer's picturetgardner1167

Crusaders Win a Nail Biter, Beat Red Raiders

Saturday’s contest between the Canisius Crusaders and St. Francis Red Raiders had the making of a sloppy, one-sided affair early on.

Then came the second half. And the Crusaders held on for dear life for the victory.

“Credit to them, they kept fighting back and made some plays,” coach Rich Robbins said. “It was a great battle, and it was great to come away with the win.”

The Crusaders took an early 7-0 lead when Joel Nicholas scored from 14 yards out with eight minutes to go in the first quarter. Following a 27-yard field goal by Tristian Vandenberg – and a short touchdown run by Xzavier Janczylik a bit later to get the Red Raiders on the board – a thunderstorm struck the area at the Robert J. Stransky Sports Complex, causing both teams to run for cover.

After a long delay, play started up again, and the effects from the wet weather began to take their toll. St. Francis botched a punt deep within their own territory, and the Crusaders recovered at the three-yard line – only to be stood up at the goal line by the Red Raider defense.

Unfortunately for the Red Raiders, the goal line stand went for naught. On the very next play, Nicholas recorded a safety, increasing the Crusader lead to 12-6.

The free kick that followed resulted in a field goal try could have made the score 15-6 at halftime, but the special teams woes continued for both sides. Another botched snap – this time on a short field goal attempt by Canisius – led to a miss and a six-point lead midway through the game.

One thing that turned into a trend throughout the contest was the Red Raiders’ penchant for turning the ball over. On back-to-back drives in the third quarter, quarterback Jake Ritts was intercepted by Antwain Gandy-Benavides and Joe Jamison, which – along with an interception by JT Boyland in the first quarter – were the second and third picks of the game by a swarming Canisius defense that was relentless in its pass rush.

“I thought our defensive staff put together a great game plan this week,” Robbins said. “Ritts is very talented, and we got him a little off his game today by keeping him guessing with our coverages. We got some turnovers, for sure, but I’d like to see those turned more into touchdowns and not into field goals.”

The Crusaders turned those interceptions into points, as Jack Westermeier hauled in an 18-yard touchdown pass, and – in the wake of a second fumble recovery off of a botched snap, the fifth Red Raider turnover of the day – Vandenberg converted his second kick of the game. Despite the 22-6 lead, St. Francis wasn’t done yet.

A 51-yard touchdown pass from Ritts to Janczylik pulled the Red Raiders to within eight points after a two-point conversion, and the game was officially in reach for them again. Holding Canisius to a third field goal on their next drive, Ritts then promptly went out and threw a 35-yard strike to D’Andre Jones – finding paydirt and whittling St. Francis’ deficit to just three.

A short while later, the Crusaders decided to get aggressive. Facing a fourth down with one yard to go on the Red Raiders’ 11-yard line, they called a running play but were stopped short. However, the aggression didn’t stop there, as they continued to blitz Ritts after he and his team took over with barely two minutes to play and 89 yards away from the end zone.

“We didn’t want to sit back in a soft zone and let them come down the field on us,” Robbins said. “We decided that if we were gonna go down, we would go down swinging by being aggressive and trying to force them into a bad throw or a turnover.”

Reaching their opposition’s red zone, St. Francis decided to try and score a touchdown and win the game, rather than trusting their shaky special teams to tie the score and go to overtime. But Canisius made their own goal line stand, as a desperation pass on fourth-and-goal fell incomplete with 28.7 seconds left, giving the Crusaders the win.

It was the biggest play of the game, as the intended receiver could not hold onto the ball after a devastating hit by CJ Ozolins – the kind you rarely see at the high school level.

“That was definitely the biggest play of the game,” Robbins said. “He’s our middle linebacker, and he played his coverage well and knocked the ball out. We’re fortunate that he made that play.”

Next up for the Crusaders is Cardinal O’Hara and then the postseason – but Robbins said they won’t overlook the Hawks.

“O’Hara’s got one heck of a team,” Robbins said. “They’re probably the strongest small school in our league by far. Coach Dudley does a great job with those guys, so we’ll be ready to play them.”

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