A longtime assistant coach in the Most Holy Redeemer (MHR) football program, Matt Phelan was set to take over the Raiders for the 2020 fall season.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic obviously didn’t cooperate as the entire Southside Catholic Conference (SCC) sports schedule was wiped away over the last year due to health restrictions.
Now, after an incredibly long wait, youth sports are back and raring to go.
Opening the SCC season, MHR defeated St. John Fisher (SJF) 8-0 on Sept. 2 in a varsity game played at Br. Rice High School. In the junior-varsity game, MHR won 32-6.
“This was 100-percent special. It’s unbelievable having the kids back,” Phelan said. “They’re getting back into it, and they absolutely love it. Talking to their parents, so many say, ‘My kid is as happy as can be to get out here and play.’”
The game was a rematch of the 2019 Gold Ball championship game, won by SJF, and was one of four league games played, the first in the last 20 months.
Even in defeat, albeit a close loss, SJF Coach Mark Fennell enjoyed seeing the players on both sides get out and compete in front of a crowd of friends and family on a beautiful September night.
“We’re very excited to be back playing,” Fennell said. “It’s two years off for most of these kids. Some played in Indiana, some in suburban leagues, but all in all, it’s been two years. It was exciting to see the boys play very well tonight. It’s a tough loss, but we lost to a good team, no shame in that. We’ve got to get back to work.”
Both teams shook off some rust from the extended layoff, but both defenses delivered strong performances. MHR finally broke through midway through the fourth quarter.
On the first play of a drive, quarterback Austin Mrskos rolled out of the pocket on a fake handoff and broke free up the left sideline, outracing the SJF defense for the score on a 45-yard touchdown run at the 5:29 mark.
MHR offensive lineman Shea Leahy converted the 2-point point-after kick. Phelan credited his imposing offensive line for sticking with the game plan against a tough Falcons defense.
“Our line is very big, but you saw today that SJF had a smaller line and punched us in the face,” Phelan said. “The plan was, for sure, to use our offensive line and great running backs and fullback with Austin. We’ve got to open up the playbook as we move forward. With a line like this, you’d be crazy not to try and run the ball.”
The MHR line includes Colin Goggin, Joey Kwilose, Tim Harkins, Leahy, Jack Watson and Matthew Pikus.
On its next possession, SJF drove 60 yards over the next five-plus minutes to get into the MHR red zone, but a last-second pass from the 8-yard line into the end zone as time expired was incomplete.
MHR’s Joe Camer also had a key pass break-up early in the drive.
“South Side football is a special thing. It’s back,” Phelan said. “These first three weeks were a complete learning experience for everyone, but we’re having a blast. The kids learned about us, and we had to learn about them. For me, I had to learn how to be a head coach.”
For SJF, quarterback Emmett Dowling rushed for 35 yards and threw for 29 yards. He also added an interception on defense. The Falcons offensive line includes Owen Lynch, Garrett Mann, Emmett McDonagh, Bobby Rusch and Jimmy Bansley.
“Emmett played really well, and our o-line played well as a group after a rough first quarter,” Fennell said. “As far as our defense, it was a good group effort. Killian Lacy did a great job putting us all in our places and played downhill really well from the linebacker spot.”
Fennell hopes the Falcons can build off the momentum of a well-played game, even in defeat.
“It’s a fine line. It’s a good loss, but you don’t want to get in that habit,” Fennell said. “Overall, we’re happy. We’re further along than we thought. We were engaged these last three days of practice and engaged from the start here. Hopefully, we can carry that attitude and that work ethic going forward.”
The MHR roster includes Cormac Molloy, Brendan Dickman, Mrskos, Camer, Timothy Reidy, Brendan Tomkins, Dominic Lullo, Kyle Keyser, Daniel Speski, Emmitt Senger, Jack Rourke, Frank Garofalo, Anthony Fratto, Ryan Burns, Fintan Ryan, Ben Strimel, Tommy Hosty, Ryan Hammelmann, Harkins, Watson, Joey Doyle, Goggin, Leahy, Kwilose, Pikus and Seamus Blake.
Phelan is assisted by Matt Senger.
The SJF roster includes Dowling, Jake Carroll, John Fennell, Patrick O’Connor, Vinny Stubitsch, Shane Daley, Michael Fitzgerald, Jake Roney, Sean Godfrey, Seamus O’Leary, Jimmy Lotito, Finnegan Fitzpatrick, Tony Rusch, Colin Harrigan, Nate Killeen, Lacy, Charlie Wingate, Eamon Maloney, Terry O’Connor, Dan Urbon, Gavin Urchell, Jacob Murdoch, Dan Killeen, John Nechvatal, Gavin Namors, Rusch, Declan Fitzgerald, Bansley, Sean Sloyan, Brian Guinane, Tommy Buker, Brian Ortell, McDonagh, Declan Stanley, Mann, Ryan Hitz-Easton and Lynch.
Fennell is assisted by Jay Fennell and Mike Hugelet.
In the other varsity games, St. Christina beat St. Barnabas 43-6 (St. Rita), St. Daniel beat St. Michael 19-16 (St. Laurence) and St. Catherine beat St. Cajetan 41-0 (Marist).
In the JV game, QB Jake Fleming threw for 2 touchdowns, a 12-yard pass to Jack Fratto and a 20-yard strike to Marty Berry. Jack Badke (3-yard TD run) and Mickey McManus (15-yard TD run) also scored for the Raiders.
For SJF, Connor Spatz found the end zone on a 16-yard TD run.