As if their first meeting was not dramatic enough, Brother Rice, for the second time this season, defeated the St. Rita Mustangs in a grueling battle that came down to the game's final seconds.
Down 34-30 with 2:43 remaining, the Mustangs faced four fourth-downs on their final possession, and managed to convert all of them. Yet, the Crusader defense refused to stand down on their home turf. St. Rita advanced the ball as far as the four-yard line. Twice, Mustang passes to the endzone were broken up by defensive back Dan Johnson, who was outstanding the entire afternoon. The Mustangs then committed a back-breaking, false-start penalty which set them back five yards with just three seconds left. Quarterback John Kelley’s pass came up short of the endzone, and Crusader fans and players rejoiced together on their home field for the last time this season.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they scored their last points of the season on a 46-yard field goal to end the first half, extending their seemingly insurmountable lead to 30-14. Indeed, St. Rita had their way with Rice’s defense from the start, as senior Tim Lombard rushed 72-yards for the score on their first play of the game. Lombard was the dominating factor in the half, adding three other scores of 36, 33, and two yards.
Senior quarterback Matt Page of the Crusaders tried to keep pace, connecting with senior Malik Moody in the endzone twice for 27-yard touchdown receptions. However, despite being down sixteen points at the half, Page and his team remained calm and collected.
“Our stuff was working, but we just weren’t executing,” said Page, who threw for three TDs on the day along with a short rushing score. “I knew we would come back.”
Coach Badke and his team remained confident, but no one could have expected the Crusader defense to hold the powerful Mustangs scoreless in the second half. No one except the players, that is. Behind senior and all-area lineman Brian Craft, and a strong secondary led by Johnson and senior Mike Bettinardi. The defense forced three quick St. Rita punts, including one with six minutes remaining in the game, set up by the quarterback pressure of linebacker Tim Barry.
A definite key play took place in the middle of the third quarter, when a Mustang brought Page way out of bounds and took him down. Players of both teams were tense, but serious conflict was avoided. However, the play did spark the play of the Crusader offense. A personal foul penalty gave Rice the ball inside the redzone, where they took full advantage. Luke Mueller, known for his receiving abilities, rushed the ball four yards for the score and brought the Crusaders within ten points of their opponent.
Though the Crusader offense lacked the presence of sophomore running back Marcus Jones, out with a concussion, sophomore Alex Alarcon and others gave the running game a much-needed boost. Also, as in the previous matchup, Page looked to take the ball himself during certain stretches of the game. While utilizing receivers Chris Rozell and Brendan McGinley in a big way during the late third and early fourth quarters, Page rushed the ball four times over the course of the possession. He finished it off with a one-yard score to bring pull his team within three.
After another huge defensive stop, Rice prepared to take command once and for all. Twice in their final possession, they faced third down and long, and both times, Page connected with Mueller on beautifully executed plays for first downs. Then, incredibly, Page threw one over every Mustang defender to Moody in the middle of the endzone from 30 yards out. The home section jumped out of their seats as Moody’s third touchdown of the game gave the Crusaders the lead.
Following the hard-fought defensive stop Rice needed, it was over. Rice had defeated St. Rita for the second time this year, and had earned the right to play Simeon in the Prep Bowl Championship game at Solider Field next week.
“You played hard for each other, and you knew you could do it,” said Coach Badke to his team after the game. “You will never forget this.”
With two straight victories in these Prep Bowl Playoffs, the Crusaders now hold a record of 7-5. They have captured the Catholic League Championship, and now look to add a Prep Bowl ring to their accomplishments. Simeon will no doubt present a major challenge, but if the Crusaders fight to the very end like they did on Saturday, there’s no doubt the 2012 Brother Rice football season will be etched in history.