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Heart carries Xavier to win

Members of the Xavier football team pose with the championship trophy after the 2012 CHSAA "AA" Football Championship game against St. John the Baptist. Photo by Robert Cole
TimesLedger Newspapers

Hurricane Sandy chased 11 Xavier players from their Rockaway homes, but left them wanting to keep their football family together as long as possible.

The Knights banded together and drew strength from one another all the way to a Cathoic High School Football League Class AA title 35-14 over St. John the Baptist Saturday night at Mitchel Field in Uniondale, L.I. The Manhattan school’s first ‘AA’ crown since 1996 — when it was called the ‘A’ — was the only way the players felt this story could end. The already close team, which had trouble finding a place to practice the last two weeks, was going to be an example of perseverance for its community.

“It took the whole character of the team to another level,” Xavier Coach Chris Stevens said. “We knew after we beat Mount [St. Michael in the quarterfinal] if we can pull this off, we could be the feel good story of Sandy.”

Seniors Ryan Kilgallen and Jimmy Wolfer, two of the players who were forced out of their homes, played a major role in the title win. Kilgallen rushed for 104 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries. He also caught a huge 36-yard pass from Trey Solomon to set up his own 5-yard touchdown run for the game’s first score. Wolfer was a force on defense with an interception and sack. He also had a long kick-off return to the 50 against a Cougars (9-3) team that won the first meeting 14-0.

“It’s beyond words,” Wolfer said. “I’ve been thinking about this since freshman year. It just feels so good to win this game. I’m just so choked up by it.”

He was one of four players who lived with teammate Connor Sweet in Manhattan after the storm, some of whom are back home in Rockaway. Another of the four, senior Ryan McDade helped evacuate his family before their house burned down. He walked around after the game with a red hammer in his hand.

It was the symbol the team adopted after Stevens brought it to his pep rally speech prior to the team’s Thanksgiving Day and semifinal win over rival Fordham Prep. He brought two hammers, meant to be used for a service trip by students, and made an X for Xavier (10-2). It intensified the fire already present in his players.

“It just shows the perseverance of all of us,” Kilgallen said. “The community itself of the Rockaways, Breezy Point, it’s a great community, it’s tight-knit. The motto is keep calm and rebuild because we know we’re going to get it done and come back stronger.”

The 11 players became an example to their teammates and their courage motivated them. Solomon, who rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns, said the win was bittersweet. Xavier had fought to stay together as long as possible and this game marked the end of their journey as teammates.

“I feel like I want to keep going,” Solomon said.

Their lives will continue with their spirit strong. Sandy destroyed homes, but couldn’t tear down Xavier and its players’ will to win for each other.

“It’s the final chapter,” Wolfer said. “We got to finish it strong and that’s what we did.”

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