According to Ricky Antelli, his football team had set its collective eye on going unbeaten and bringing home a state title ever since its season-opening practices in the swelter of August.
Then Aquinas Institute won by a mere point in its first game against rival McQuaid Jesuit, and by six points over Buffalo St. Francis two weeks later — not the stuff of a powerhouse.
“Those were close calls. After those games we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to step it up,'” recalled Antelli, a senior lineman.
Step it up they did. In fact, there were no more narrow finishes the rest of the season.
Just pure dominance.
Aquinas successfully met its lofty goal with a 34-12 victory over Lansingburgh in the state Class A championship game, held Nov. 23 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The Little Irish finished with a 13-0 record and the No. 1 state ranking.
“We’ve wanted this ever since we were freshmen,” said Anthony Fitts, a senior running back who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after scoring three touchdowns and gaining 159 yards on 25 carries.
The Little Irish shot out to a 14-0 lead after one quarter on touchdown runs of 17 yards and 1 yard by Fitts. Lansingburgh closed to within 14-12 by the third period, but Fitts scored on a 1-yard run near the quarter’s end to make it 21-12. Anthony Bianchi then delivered the dagger by returning an interception 69 yards for a score with 10:22 left in the game, driving the lead to 28-12. A 21-yard TD pass from Ben Bostick to Dan Young with 3:50 to go closed out the scoring against the Knights.
Aquinas had made the title game by winning 28-7 over Sweet Home of Section 6 in quarterfinal play on Nov. 10 and 17-0 over Carthage of Section 3 in the semifinal on Nov. 16.
The Irish were equally dominant in the Section 5 Class A tournament leading up to states. Top-seeded AQ scored a 28-7 triumph over No. 2 Eastridge in the sectional title game on Nov. 2, after having reached the final by winning 42-7 over No. 8 Brighton in quarterfinal play on Oct. 20 and 28-0 over No. 4 Victor in the semifinal on Oct. 26.
How strong was Aquinas’ play in the post-season? Consider that its last four opponents brought in a combined record of 40-1 — and the Irish outscored them 107-26. These margins of victory were as huge as AQ’s line, of which the 6-foot-3-inch, 304-pound Antelli is a part. He and his mammoth counterparts — six Irish players are listed at 290 pounds or above — starved opponents while on defense and opened nice holes for Fitts while on offense.
“We’ve got a great line — a bunch of big, strong kids, and we all have a pretty good relationship,” said Fitts, who at 5 feet, 9 inches and 182 pounds weighs barely half of some of his linemen.
Antelli acknowledged that line players aren’t usually the first to get the glory, but he knows the value he and his cohorts bring to the team.
“It takes a certain person. You’ve got to be down in the trenches, hit, open the holes. You’ve got to love what you do. We love hitting and pushing people around,” said Antelli, an offensive guard and defensive tackle.
Aquinas, under head coach Chris Battaglia, has now won its fourth state title in school history, with the others coming in 1998, 2001 and 2002. Could the 2007 Little Irish be considered the high-school version of the New England Patriots, who also have been on a quest for an undefeated season? Not really, said Fitts.
“We’re our own team and don’t try to compare ourselves to anyone. We’re our own individuals with our own goals,” he explained.
And they met every one during this year of perfection.