A sense of longing lingered on Byers Field on Saturday night after a 38-0 win over West Toronto Prep.
Long after the final whistle, long after the incomparable Saint Ignatius Marching Band played the Alma Mater, and long after many of the fans had left, Saint Ignatius senior football players remained on the field and outside the locker room.
These 36 seniors yearned for just one more game – a playoff game that will not come this year. But beyond that, these young men ached for more time. Just a few more hours, or days, to be together as a family and as a team.
Ten or twenty years from now, an observer might look at the 5-5 record and think, 'Geez, this team must not have been good.' Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Wildcats had so much talent and willpower, but a grueling schedule and a few bounces the other way stole away wins.
But for many of these Wildcat seniors, the wins will come later in life. The wins will come when these men are groomsmen in each other's weddings. The wins will come when these men are there for each other when loved ones pass away. The wins will come when 50 years from now, these men call each other on the phone and say, 'Hey, do you remember that time when Conway took that punt 67 yards to the house?'
Winning is fun, and the 11 state championships are great. But you can't win it all every year. And a 5-5 finish does not diminish the bonds formed between the men on this Saint Ignatius football team. That much was clear on the field after the game when the Wildcats hugged each other after the game and supported each other.
"For everybody, it's sad that we're ending. If you look at our schedule, we can play with anybody," said Head Football Coach Chuck Kyle '69." There were just a few games when we lost close ones, and those come down to a play or two. It's a shame we couldn't get that play, I feel bad about that. But they kept playing. That's all you can ask for. So, we'll move forward."
Before the game, Kyle challenged his men to start fast. The Wildcats did just that, scoring 21 points in the first quarter.
"The kids came with a purpose. This was their last game," Kyle said. "I told the guys at Mass, 'By rules of football, I can only put 11 out there at a time. So our guys who go out their first have a responsibility to get these other guys playing time. They did a great job. We scored 21 points in the first quarter."
The Wildcats indeed started fast. Aidan Crummie stepped in front of a Golden Warriors pass, returning it to the West Toronto Prep (WTP) 5-yard line. Three plays later, Griffin Hanna completed a 5-yard touchdown strike to Jake Lang.
After the Wildcats' defense forced a three-and-out, James Crosby took the Wildcats' offense upon his shoulders. The speedy senior charged 14 yards for a rushing touchdown, his first of the season.
After a short WTP drive, the Wildcats took over at their own 32-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Henry Cook streaked open down the middle. Hanna lofted a perfect pass to Cook, who caught it and outran the secondary for six. With another Rory McConville extra point, the Wildcats led, 21-0, after the opening quarter.
On the next drive, Crosby went to work. The talented back pushed forward, eating up chunks of yardage. The Wildcats pushed all the way down to the WTP 5-yard line before the drive stalled. McConville took the field and promptly hit a 22-yard field goal.
The lead stayed at 24-0 entering halftime, as rain poured on the fans and players at Byers. The Golden Warriors drove down the field, only to stall in Saint Ignatius territory. The Wildcats kneeled on the final seconds, running to the locker room to dry off a bit.
The Wildcats' opening drive of the half could not gain much traction, so the punt team took the field. Craziness then ensued.
As the rain continued to drizzle and the wind blew, the snap flew far over the head of Declan Mangan. The ball slid to the end zone, where Mangan managed to pick it up and get off a punt. The line-drive punt traveled to the 31-yard line, two yards short of the line of scrimmage. Per NFHS rules, if a punt falls short of the line of scrimmage, the punting team can pick it up and run. That's just what Aidan Conway did.
The junior ran ahead, using blockers to push forward. Conway bullied his way through Golden Warriors, breaking tackles en route to what is officially scored as a 67-yard rushing touchdown.
Wildcats fans might remember this rule from a few years ago, when the Wildcats were a victim of this rule in a game against Eastern Christian Academy.
"That is a crazy rule. But Jim Cahill said right away, 'Pick it up and run!' But in that situation, if the punt doesn't go past the line of scrimmage, it's live," Kyle said. "Conway took off, and just ran a few people over. That's a memorable play for him."
On West Toronto Prep's next drive, the Wildcats' defense made another memorable play. The Golden Warriors fumbled, and John Lenhard fell on the ball. Getting the ball at the Golden Warriors' 44, the Wildcats marched downfield, with Crosby leading the way. Despite the best efforts of Pat Keane and Co., the drive stalled deep in WTP territory early in the fourth quarter.
Yet again, the defense stepped up to the plate. Anthony Gerace forced a Golden Warriors fumble on the first play, and Rico Levert tracked it down in the end zone. The Wildcats' senior lineman, affectionately known as "Porkchop" earned his first varsity touchdown.
On its final drive of the game, WTP turned the ball over again. This time, Dominic DeVengencie did the trick, picking off a Golden Warriors' pass.
In the final minutes, Crosby carried the load, burning clock and gaining yards. The Wildcats kneeled on it to end the season with a 38-0 win.
Crosby stood out as the big contributor on offense, finishing with 137 rushing yards and a score. Hanna tallied 100 passing yards, with Lang and Cook hauling in TD passes.
On defense, Conway topped the team with 4 tackles, but the story of the game was the unheralded players who contributed. Daniel Finnan tallied two tackles and a tackle for loss. Vince Fagnili notched a tackle, receiving a big roar from the Saint Ignatius sidelines. Seniors such as Michael Corte, Kevin Kempffer, Christopher Mathews, and Jake Davis earned playing time for the Wildcats.
In all, the story of the night was a final triumph for the Wildcats, and the chance for every member of the team to play. It was a night many of these Wildcats will not soon forget.
But just as poignant as the final game was the aftermath. Few parents or seniors left Byers Field with dry eyes. At some point, you could see every senior take a deep breath and absorb the moment. A few lingered, looking at the field once last time as players.
To end the season early hurts for these seniors. But to feel such a way is another reminder that years in passing will not sever ties of new days from the old. They are Ignatius men forever.