As the tear flowed and the heads hung Cardinal Hayes coach C.J. O’Neil would have none of it.
Yes the Cardinals fell a score and thus win shy of the program’s first CHSFL Class AAA title thanks to a 20-12 loss to defending champion Archbishop Stepinac last Saturday night at Fordham University. Yes, the Cardinals fell hurt themselves with penalties and turnover. Yes the players were unable to get the crown it so desperately wanted to honor teammates Delano Cowan who died to weeks ago. It still didn’t take way from what it did accomplish in he grand scheme of things in O’Neil’s eyes.
It’s because O’Neil was around 10 years ago when the idea of Hayes competing for a title at the highest classification would have been laughable. He said in 2006 it began the year as league’s lowest ranked team after winning the ‘A’ crown the year prior.
“When we took over we were the 21 or 22 ranked team and here we are competing for No. 1,” O’Neil said.”
It was a gradual climb, another ‘A’ championship game appearance in 2008, reaching the ‘AA’ final in 2009 and winning its first ‘AA” chip since 1981 two years ago. The Cardinals, who end this year with it annual Thanksgiving clash with rival Mount St. Michael, finished a rough first season in the ‘AAA’ with one of the best season in program history.
The campaign was also best by a team from New York City in the CHSFL since Mount reached the final in 2007. Farrell was the last squad from the five borough to win all the way back in 2000.
“It meant a lot to go to the championship,” Villanova-bound running back Justin Covington said. “It just shows how much heart kids from Cardinal Hayes has and how we can go out and compete with any team in the Catholic High School League.”
They did so having to beat perennial power St. Anthony’s twice, the second time coming a week after Cowan’s death. The players rallied behind their “brother” by carrying his jersey and wearing a patch and the school community around the team. A service was held at the school days before the final and Covington made a tribute video in his memory.
“It really struck home,” O’Neil said. “He was a fun loving kid Delano and he was part of their family and part of our family.”
The future of the Hayes football family remains bright thanks to the emergence of junior quarterback Christian Anderson. Like a team the won three straight after a two-game slide in October, he picked himself up after two first half interceptions. Anderson, who beat out Brion Vigo for the starting job after Week 5, completed 15 of 29 passes for 193 yards rand ran for score. He showed excellent mobility and great chemistry with junior receiver Shameen Jones.
“Next year I am going to do my best and come back here and win a AAA championship,” Anderson said.
It is something that was never talked about with and at Hayes (8-2) over the last decade. Now it is all anyone can think about.
“This team is going to gets its ninth win in the AAA,” O’Neil said. “If you said that 10 years ago, people would thing. What did they flip it and AAA is the lowest division now? No, this is high level football.”