A taste of the atmosphere pic.twitter.com/Q7lQGXMOgv
— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) November 2, 2019
ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN — Mark Modeste put his hands on his knees, straddled the 20-yard line and looked down.
As St. Francis ran the clock out on Saturday’s 24-7 win, Riordan’s head coach closed his eyes and prayed for what to say to his team.
The Crusaders, losers of six in a row, couldn’t snap the streak on the occasion of their home field’s soft opening — the first game held on the hilltop campus since 2014. But, while the loss stung, the unofficial debut of the $2.9 million baseball-football-track facility signalled a new era for the program.
“We looked good early, but this is all a process,” Modeste said. “We’re learning how to win, and until we get one, it’s going to be an elusive deal, but I’m proud of the way they competed … It’s a really important message, whatever you leave them with, because the disappointment is there.”
Before the season started, there was much optimism surrounding the program, with the new field and Modeste bringing in a downhill running attack that would play well in the West Catholic Athletic League, but after winning their first two games, the Crusaders fell in a close contest with Justin-Siena and got smoked 41-0 by league power Serra.
There have been close and frustrating games along the way — including a 24-21 loss to Mitty and a 28-27 double-overtime loss to Bellarmine — but the opening of the field at least stood as a beacon for players as they saw it come together over the first two months of school.
“You hear the buzz all year, like, ‘Hey, they put the R in,’ or, ‘Hey, did you see the end zone?’” Modeste said. “Life happens, you have to go to school and take tests, you’ve got to go to Gellert [Park] and practice, so it’s out of sight, out of mind, but I think we all had the mentality, I would walk around daily to see the progress. I think there was that pop.”
Until even noon on Friday, it wasn’t certain that Riordan would be able to play Saturday’s game. There are still finishing touches to put on — the track isn’t yet re-painted — but during the team’s study hall, Modeste — Riordan’s first-year head coach — informed the Crusaders that not only would they get to do their walkthrough that day on Mayer Family Field, but they’d be playing there, too.
“I played a trick on them. I said, ‘The field’s not done yet […] but let’s go practice there anyway,’” Modeste said. “They just exploded.”
The Riordan band was boistrous, the crowd loud and buzzing, and a number of alumni and other school teams roamed the sideline.
Riordan came out strong, holding the Lancers (3-6, 2-4 in WCAL) to a 24-yard field goal to end a lengthy, grinding opening drive with 5:11 to go in the first quarter. After a 20-yard Jaren Estillore kickoff return, the Crusaders then churned out a lengthy series of their own, riding 20 rushing yards from Fazon Ruth to a 65-yard scoring drive, capped by a one-yard reach-over-the-line touchdown by quarterback Azaan Ledbetter, the first touchdown in field history with 10:15 to go in the second quarter.
Thanks to three straight penalties backing St. Francis down to its own two-yard line, Riordan’s defense looked poised to widen the gap, but a Joey Schott pass to Carsten Rawls on third-and-19 gave the Lancers some breathing room. Ryan Daly then hit Nicholas Andrighetto for an 11-yard gainer. The Lancers’ passing game was too strong, as they got out of a second-and-14 and a third-and-15 at midfield through the air (St.Francis passed for 148 yards on the day, including four plays of 19 yards or more).
Kemoe’atu Kefu dropped Camilo Arquette for a loss — one of his team-high 10 tackles on the day — but Daly hit a 15-yard end zone fade to Schott with 31.4 seconds left before the half to take the lead for good.
St. Francis added a touchdown by Teu (79 yards on 15 carries) with 8:23 to go the third quarter after a three-and-out by the Crusaders, and put things out of reach with a 29-yard run over the right edge by Arquette (66 yards, 10 carries) with 6:55 to go in regulation.
“You look at that offense, it looks like the one we ran in college at Santa Clara,” Modeste said. “They do a lot of stuff that we want to try to get to.”
The closest Riordan got to scoring was a tempo drive early in the fourth quarter, when Ledbetter completed three of four passes before a false start and a bad snap halted momentum. Ledbetter finished the day 5-for-18 for 42 yards, and ran three times for three yards, taking one sack.
“I told the coaches and I told the boys that I wished this was the first game, and we could build off it,” Modeste said. “There’s something there.”
Ruth was held to just 28 yards on 10 carries, while the Crusaders generated just 120 yards, still a sight better than the 30 they managed last week in a 45-0 loss to St. Ignatius. The Riordan defense was also far better, with four tackles for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups. Sophomore two-way lineman Joseph Harbert was particularly impressive, racking up three tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss.
“I was definitely pleased with the effort, as opposed to last week,” Modeste said. “Last week, I don’t know what happened. I take responsibility. When the kids don’t come out and play hard, you take it, as a coach, as your responsibility. You have to lead these young men. Sometimes, it takes a little extra effort. It was certainly great to be out here. It’s a great feel, and it was a fun deal for our school.”
It’s performances like Harbert’s and Kefu’s (he’s only a sophomore) that encourage Modeste, along with some of the early-season games by the junior Ruth, who is now just 25 yards away from 1,000 on the season with one more game to go: 0-8 Sacred Heart Cathedral, who will christen the field officially on Nov. 9.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that kids bounce back quicker than we do, but they still need that encouragement,” Modeste said. “It’s tough when you’ve got one game left and you’re eliminated from the playoff picture, but we remind them that every game of football that they get to play is an opportunity, and a gift, and this is a really cool deal.”