Irish win first SOSSA Bowl since 2005
The rags to riches story of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish senior football team continued Tuesday afternoon at Ron Joyce Stadium on the campus of McMaster University.
Two years after going winless in regular-season play and one year removed from a three-win season, the Irish trounced Zone 1 champion Sir Allan MacNab Lions 42-18 to win the Welland school’s first Southern Ontario Secondary Schools Association Bowl since 2005.
Notre Dame now moves on to play Hamilton St. Thomas More, who won the Golden Horseshoe Athletic Conference title with a 54-18 tripling of Holy Trinity of Oakville.
“We worked hard all year and we’ve never gone this far in football,” Notre Dame receiver/kicker Jonah Gruarin said. “My first year we went 0-6 and last year we won three games and lost in the semifinals. This feels amazing.”
The 18-year-old and his Irish teammates knew even before the season started that Notre Dame had a chance to do something special this season.
“In the summer, we were looking at all the players we had and we knew we had a lot of good Grade 10 players coming up to Grade 11,” the six-foot, 180 pounder. “We worked hard and we did what we could.”
Notre Dame head coach Tim Bisci felt his team would be competitive but wasn’t projecting a SOSSA Bowl in the immediate future.
“You don’t know how guy are going to be and Graz (quarterback Brandon Graziani) has been better than we thought,” he said. “He has been better than good and the rest of the guys have been good too.”
Winning the school’s first SOSSA Bowl in a dozen years was a sweet feeling for Gruarin.
“I heard the last time that they lost in the OFSAA Bowl so we are going to do our best to change that,” he said.
The 12B student played a big role in making history Tuesday, having a strong game kicking the ball and catching TD passes of 50 and 22 yards from Graziani. In Notre Dame’s last three games, Gruarin has caught TD passes of 100, 75 and 50 yards.
“We have one play that we always go to and it’s me and Brandon,” Gruarin said. “He always throws it and I run the rest of the field and get there.”
What the play is will remain a mystery for at least one more week.
“We will keep it on the down low until next game if we win,” he said.
Gruarin’s talents are an essential part of the mystery play.
“He runs by guys and he has deceptive speed,” Bisci said. “At the end of the day, he catches the ball, guys are on him and he swats them away and just keeps going.
“Once you get him in space, he is tough to bring down.”
He’s also one of the Notre Dame players who was around for the dark days of the program.
“He has been through the hard times and when he came in last year we made him a captain,” Bisci said. “Right away he was one of our leaders and he is one of our leaders again this year.”
Notre Dame had a narrow 15-6 lead at halftime with the Irish chalking up 156 yards in total offence and the Lions totalling 136.
The Irish took command in the first seven minutes of the second half, thanks to touchdown runs by Graziani and Justin Succar. They then put the game away with the 50-yard TD pass to Gruarin on the last play of the third quarter. Notre Dame would end up scoring majors on its first four possessions of the second half.
“We made a couple of adjustments and looked at the way they were lining up to our sets,” Bisci said. “We tried to find some weaknesses and we found a couple of them.”
It helped having Niagara Catholic Athletic Association offensive MVP Graziani running the Irish attack.
“Graz being Graz, he took the game over and he was the best player on the field again,” Bisci said.
Graziani was too banged up to practice in the days leading up to last week’s Niagara Bowl, but he seemed to be moving better Tuesday.
“He has another week to get healthy for the next game but he’s still sore and his arm is still sore,” Bisci said. “He’s been banged up for the last three weeks but it doesn’t matter. The kids just shows up and plays.”
Notre Dame’s defence also showed up and played Tuesday. Although it surrendered 334 yards of offence, it bent but never broke led by the play of Grade 11 players Zack Melnyk and Gerrid Holton, both NCAA all-stars on offence and defence.
“They have an edge to them when they play and they go hard after it,” Bisci said. “We need guys to play like that because next week is going to be a tough opponent.”
Irish 42 Lions 18
BPSN Star of the Game: Jonah Gruarin, two TD catches and a strong game kicking the ball in windy conditions.
For the Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Brandon Graziani, nine carries for 98 yards, including TD runs of 19 and 16 yards: Graziani, 5-9 passing for 145 yards, including TD passes of 50 and 22 yards to Gruarin; three-yard and nine-yard TD runs by Justin Succar among 18 carries for 102 yards; Gruarin, single point on kick; Zack Melnyk, sack.
For the Sir Allan MacNab Lions: TD passes of four and 10 yards from Quincy Vaughn to Jack Morin; Vaughn, 10-yard TD run and 17-30 passing for 257 yards.
Game stats: First downs: ND 20, SAM 17. Net offence: ND 344, SAM 334. Turnovers: ND 1, SAM 4. Penalties: ND 9 for 80 yards, SAM 10 for 85 yards. Scoring by quarters: ND 1-14-20-7=42, SAM 0-6-6-6=18.
Up next: Notre Dame advances to the Golden Horseshoe Bowl Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. versus St. Thomas More at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
Stats courtesy of John Metcalfe.