As we all know, Croton-Harmon entered the season without its two two running backs, Matt Tralli and Kevin Soares. The dynamic Tralli is now on the team at Marist. The bullish Soares is on the team at Fordham. So why — other than last week’s feature subject, Jesse Mainiero — was it such a foregone conclusion that the Tigers were headed back to the Dietz and perhaps the Dome?
That’s simple. Look no further than the five big guys up front. Seniors Kyle Ricciardi, John Brennan and Dennis O’Connell and juniors Matt Gennarelli and Alex Bowser form one of the best offensive lines and defensive fronts in all of Section 1. Not Class B. Not small schools. In the entire section.
The quintet averages a pretty respectable 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, but they are much more than big. They are tough, smart and talented. And more than that, they are experienced. Consider that Ricciardi (guard and linebacker) and O’Connell (nose guard) were starters as freshmen when Croton advanced to the Class C state final. They will play in their 46th varsity football game — roughly 5 1/2 seasons of football. Brennan, a three-year, two-way starter, isn’t far behind at 33 games. Gennarelli, whose dad played at Rutgers (and roomed with John Jay assistant Bill Pickel), and Bowser, who coach John Catano said is the team’s strongest player, continue to catch up after starting some games as sophomores.
“It’s helped us a lot,” said O’Connell, a tackle and nose guard. “The more experience you have, the better you’re going to be come game time. Every year, we’ve had extended seasons so it’s almost like playing two seasons. That’s given us more and more experience.”
The Tigers have won three Section 1 championships in the last four years. Twice — this year and in 2008 — they have played the maximum number of games.
The linemen aren’t just graybeards, either. O’Connell has already given his verbal to D-IAA Bryant. Ricciardi (as a linebacker) and Brennan (as a defensive end) have received interest from Division II programs as well as Marist and Fordham. All three are expected to play college football.
They will know what to expect, they said, when Hornell attacks on Sunday. According to Catano, the Red Raiders keep nine players in the box, blitzing linebackers with the hope they can force teams to pass. That means the execution could come down to Mainiero, who is just 45 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. But the protection will be conducted by the big men. They are ready.
“They’re big up front. They’re probably bigger than us, but that doesn’t intimidate us,” Brennan said. “We’ve played Lourdes. They probably outweighed us by 50 or 60 pounds on the line and we put them on their backs. With our skill and our technique, we don’t have any doubt we can get the job done.”
Here’s a look at what it could take to win…
Scouting report —
Class B state championship
Croton-Harmon (11-0) vs. Section 5’s Hornell (12-0)
Where: Carrier Dome, Syracuse University
When: Sunday, 3 p.m.
Key players: Croton-Harmon — Jesse Mainiero (5-10, 185), Sr., QB/S; Kyle Ricciardi (6-2, 215), Sr., G/LB; John Brennan (6-4, 250), Sr., OT/DT; Dennis O’Connell (6-0, 250), Sr., T/NG; Nick Grous (5-9, 170), Jr., RB/DB. Hornell — Dominic Scavo (6-3, 205), Sr., QB; Rich Harkenrider (5-11, 170), Jr., RB/DB; Scott McKibben (5-7, 165), Sr., RB/DB; Zack Bacon (5-11, 215), Jr., FB/LB; Julian Reinhart (5-10, 165), Jr., WR/DB.
Key matchup: Croton’s running game vs. Hornell’s defensive aggressiveness.
Outlook: Hornell coach Gene Mastin, who has coached since 1979 and is in his final season, has admitted publicly that this team is not as good as the last two, which both won Class B state titles. Still, the Red Raiders are on a 38-game winning streak and return Scavo, a two-time state champion at quarterback. The senior has passed for 1,255 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, but the even bigger threat has been McKibben. He has rushed for 2,171 yards and 29 touchdowns while averaging over 10 yards per carry. Like Schalmont last week, Hornell runs its offense out of a spread formation but that is where the similarities end. “This is the type of team that will smack you right in the face,” Croton coach John Catano said. Hornell also regularly blitzes its linebackers to stop the running game and try to force the quarterback to pass. Mainiero, a 1,000-yard rusher, is just 45 yards shy of 1,000 passing. He may need to get well beyond that number for the Tigers to win.
Croton-Harmon coach John Catano on Hornell: “They have a very good running game — a good fullback, a good tailback. And then you have to worry about Scavo.”
“He’s not throwing it as long as before. It’s mostly all short stuff.”
Catano said the No. 1 worry was simple.
“Oh, it’s their defense. They come every time. They have nine guys in the box and they send the kitchen sink. That’s tough to prepare for because they’re daring you to throw the ball.”
“Their linebackers are excellent. When they come, they come. They’re bringing a lot of fire and brimstone.”
Hornell also runs a spread offense, but Catano said it is much different that that of Schalmont.
“Schalmont was more of a speed and finesse team. This is the type of team that will smack you right in the face.”
Catano has yet to point this out, but Hornell’s 38-game winning streak is meaningless, he said. The 12 games the Red Raiders won this year are all that count.
“That means absolutely nothing. Dobbs Ferry won 69 in a row (before Croton beat the Eagles in 2008), so what does that mean? We’re playing now. That’s what it’s all about — now. We’re both undefeated.”
Croton also hopes it will be better acclimated to playing at the Carrier Dome than it was in a 2008 loss to Southwestern in the Class C state final.
“We’re treating it like just another game. Last time with all the hoopla, it got to me, too. But I’m pretty relaxed right now. I feel pretty good.”
Hornell defensive coordinator Erik Werner on Croton (all quotes via Derrick Balinsky of the Evening Tribune):
“It’s a wing-T, hybrid-type offense — something that coach Mastin has seen before, but it’s now gone into a lot of gun, a lot of pistol. I’ve heard that it’s something they use at Nevada but I’m not too familiar with that offense. They run a lot of misdirection, a lot of pulling guards and some
double handoffs. They have a good running quarterback, who runs the offense very well.”
“Defensively, we have to keep it very simple. They have so many formations and so many different things they do. When they’re complex, we have to be simple. Our system this week is going to be something that the kids will line up in very quickly without a whole lot of thinking. We want them to just go and play football. We want them to concentrate on the basics — line up in the right spot, fire off the ball and make sure we’re making
“The quarterback is similar to last week in the fact that he’s a very good runner. He’s not as shifty, but he’s bigger. He fast — in fact, I believe he might have even played tailback before. Again, a very good runner and an underrated passer. I know he’s thrown for almost 1,000 yards but everyone is quick to point out that he runs much of the time. He throws a very nice ball.”
“We have to be prepared to defend both the run and the pass with him. He’s made plays where it’s looked like he’s going to tuck it and run and all of a sudden he pulls up and throws a quick pass to a receiver who comes open. It’s almost like a fast-break play in basketball. He’s going to be our biggest challenge of the year.”
PREDICTION: Croton-Harmon 21, Hornell 14. Hornell has been the state’s most dominant Class B team since Rye moved to Class A after the 2008 season. In fact, the Section 5 champ has not lost a game since. It will happen at some point, but is this that time? Maybe. The Red Raiders are a power team that will come right at Croton. That probably won’t be as effective as Schalmont’s speed game, which hurt the Tigers on the perimeter but not up the middle.
And if you just know the Hornell name and suspect Croton is a huge underdog, here’s what coach Gene Mastin told the Evening Tribune about Croton:
“These guys are good. This is probably the best team that we’ve played against or that we’ve coached against since the great Geneva teams in the mid 2000s. Alden was good, but this team is even a notch above that. We really have our work cut out for us.”
The game will be close. I like Croton’s defense to slow Hornell down. If Mainiero can make a few big plays through the air, the Tigers can take it.