Fighting Irish regain NCAA championship
No one took Notre Dame’s loss to Saint Paul in the 2018 Niagara Catholic Athletic Association senior football final harder than Zack Melnyk.
“The screensaver on his phone was him standing there in the mud after the game and I told him to get rid of it,” Notre Dame head coach Tim Bisci said, after the Irish defeated the Saint Michael Mustangs 26-0 in the NCAA final Thursday at Kiwanis Field. “He circled the Saint Paul game on his calendar, this game was a big game for him and next week will be an even bigger game for him
“This is it for him for high school and it really means something to him.”
The 18-year-old agreed he had been waiting all year for Thursday’s game, but has made an effort to not get too far ahead of himself.
“We are trying to take it one step at a time,” the fullback/linebacker said. “We made that mistake last year and look what happened to us.
“This year, we are focused on taking it one day and one practice at a time.”
Melnyk has been a key part of the Irish’s unbeaten season to date and his name is frequently mentioned as one of the best, if not the best, high school football players in Niagara.
“He has become a leader offensively and defensively, he’s a big strong physical player and he’s not going to shy away from the contact,” Bisci said. “He is going to play hard and he is the guy who has been leading us though this whole thing.”
Melnyk deflects the praise to his team.
“Our team has gotten that much better and that has helped everyone look much better,” the 12B student said. “When everyone is playing at full capacity, everyone shines more and it’s not about one individual.”
The six foot, 227-pounder is making sure he leaves it all on the field in his final year of high school.
“I am savouring each moment and each practice because you can never get them back,” he said. “They always say high school is the best time of your life and it flies by. I never realized that until the end.”
Melnyk knows he is not alone.
“A lot of guys feel the same way and that is why we are so focused this year.”
Bisci wasn’t pleased with his team’s offensive focus Thursday as the offence was responsible for many of Notre Dame’s 17 penalties for 175 yards.
“It’s probably not going to end up well for us if we play that bad,” he said, about next Thursday’s final against the Niagara Region High School Athletic Association champion. “We didn’t play that bad, but we would make a play and end up getting it called back.
“A couple of times we are offside just running down the line on our motion and we probably had about 40 yards in penalties on that.”
Most of the penalties were the results of mental mistakes.
“Time and time again, we aren’t thinking and it’s simple little mistakes,” Bisci said. “And it’s guys playing individualistic.”
Thankfully for the Irish, the team’s defence looked excellent in recording its fourth straight shutout and fifth in the last six games.
“As much as our offence played goofy, our defence stepped up,” Bisci said. “It was one play after another.”
He singled out the performance of Dylan Backos.
“He was unbelievable playing on the back side,” Bisci said. “Our front four played really well, our linebackers flowed and everything that went to his side, Backos ate up.”
Bisci will gladly take a game like that now instead of next week.
“Hopefully we have got it out of our system because we have seen what it was like,” he said. “We had a couple of guys with two URs (unnecessary roughness penalties) that we had to get out of the game just in case we moved on.
“You can’t have that and you can’t be selfish. You have to play within the rules, play hard and play for the team rather than play for yourself.”
The Irish dodged a bullet when star running back Jacob Succar went down with an injury in the second half. He didn’t return to play but Bisci figures he will be ready for next week.”
“It was just precautionary,” Bisci said. “He got dinged up a bit but he will be fine.”
Melnyk agrees his team can be a lot better.
“We definitely have some things to work on, but we are going to refocus, come back to practice and we will be ready for Myer (or Churchill).”
Saint Michael head coach Brian Carter was pleased with his squad’s play against the heavily favoured Irish. Late in the second quarter, the Mustangs had a drive stall on the Irish six-yard line. A score there and Saint Michael would have went into the half down 16-7.
“We wanted to teach the kids life lessons about competing and giving your all against very tough competition,” he said. “The kids did that today for the entire four quarters and I’m very proud of how they hustled, battled and played physical.”
Saint Michael struggled all game offensively against the tough Notre Dame defence. It took until late in the first half before the Mustangs recorded their initial first down and they went from minus eight yards of net offence to plus 39. In the second half, they could only muster one additional first down and another 15 yards of offence.
“They are very physical on defence and have a lot of good athletes so we had a hard time matching up,” Carter said. “But on defence, the guys just didn’t quit, they battled hard and tried their best.
“What else can you do?”
After losing their first two games of the season, Saint Michael reeled off five straight wins to qualify for the NCAA final.
“It has been a few years since we had that, for sure, and we are proud of the young men they’ve grown into over the season,” Carter said. “They have come together as a group and worked hard to represent Saint Michael.”
Irish 26 Mustangs 0
Johnny Rocco’s/ Mick and Angelo’s/Cracker Jacks Players of the Game: Notre Dame defensive back Dylan Backos.
For the Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Zack Melnyk, 13-yard TD run; Jacob Succar, 90-yard TD run; Cole Smith, 30- and 32-yard field goals; Saint Michael’s conceded two safeties; Alex Golbourne, sack in end zone for safety; Jared Tessier, interception; and, Gerrid Holton, blocked field goal.
For the Saint Michael Mustangs: Carson Gilbert, blocked field goal; Richie Marigomen, interception in the end zone.
Game stats: First downs: Notre Dame 12, Saint Michael 4. Net offence: Notre Dame 342 yards, Saint Michael 58 yards. Turnovers: Notre Dame 2, Saint Michael 3. Penalties: Notre Dame 17 for 175 yards, Saint Michael 11 for 75 yards.
Up next: Notre Dame plays the Niagara Region High School Athletic Association champion (Myer hosts Churchill Friday at 7:30 p.m. in NRHSAA final) in the Niagara final next Thursday at 7 p.m. at Kiwanis Field.