Canisius has done it once again, coming home with a huge upset and avenging last year's loss in the Monsignor Martin championship by knocking off St. Francis to reclaim the conference title. The Crusaders are moving on, but this time it's for all the marbles.
Canisius (6-5) has not played in the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association championship game since 2017, last taking home the state crown in 2016. The Crusaders will square off with a formidable foe in Cardinal Hayes (7-4). According to MaxPreps, the Cardinals have the state's No. 1-ranked team among private and public school programs.
Understandably so, with them topping Archbishop Stepinac and Iona Prep in the last two weeks. Stepinac is currently ranked No. 2 in the state while Iona is No. 4.
The Cardinals have been heating up, winning the last three games after a 1-3 month of October. They are led by QB Henry Belin (2,052 yards, 19 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 2 rushing TDs), who is putting together a fine season. He has found a strong target out wide in Kuno Mendez (53 receptions, 1,041 yards, 10 TDs) and he is also joined by Jalen Smith (1,289 all-purpose yards, 12 total TDs) in the backfield.
Canisius is no slouch though, currently ranked No. 10 in MaxPreps' state ranking. The Crusaders will look to their enforcer on D in linebacker CJ Ozolins. The Connolly Cup finalist has been stellar all year (131 tackles, 15 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 6 PDs) but he has gone to a different stratosphere in the last three games.
With 24-tackle and 20-tackle outings in that span, Ozolins has totaled 56 tackles in a three-game stretch, an average of 18.6 per contest.
He will need his running mate Riley Simpson to show out strong once again. The former Starpoint Spartan has locked in defensively in the Crusaders' last two matchups. The junior recorded two crucial picks against St. Joe's, followed by the game-sealing INT to down the Red Raiders.
The key could be how Canisius' offense works against the Cardinal defense, which is a unit that has allowed 35.3 points per game in the team's four losses. The Crusaders could continue to ride the hot hand of JoJo Dixon, the Niagara Falls native who strolled through the Frannies D for 112 rushing yards and three scores.
QB Tyler Baker, from Lockport, may not be putting up the gaudy stats he did in the early portion of the season, but a tandem like himself and Dixon (1,029 all-purpose yards, 17 total TDs) can put pressure on any defense. Regardless of this recent stretch, Baker (1,581 passing yards, 846 rushing yards, 24 total TDs) remains one of the top dual-threats in the state.
For the passing game to get going, the Canisius O-line will need to protect Baker up front, so he can find Simpson and Nik McMillan in space. To slow down the Crusaders attack, the Cardinals may look to Nicholas Burgess (63 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 FF), Damon Barnes (47 tackles, 8 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 FF), Sidiki Kone (36 tackles, 6 TFLs, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, 1 defensive TD) and Deorion Moore (2 INTs).
The Crusaders and Cardinals will battle it out for the NYSCHSAA state title at 1 p.m. today at Canisius' Robert J. Stransky Memorial Complex in West Seneca.
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, tune in to Khari as a guest on Tony Caligiuri's 'Inside High School Sports,' 10 a.m. Saturdays on WGR 550.