By Larry Moko
An impressive string of championships keeps getting longer for the St. Thomas More Knights’ football program.
Every year since 2012, either the More junior or senior team has captured a Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic high school football championship. And five times during that span both divisions earned top honours in the same season.
On Friday, in frigid conditions, the More junior squad stayed hot by winning its fourth consecutive league title, a 22-16 decision over the visiting Bishop Ryan Celtics.
First-place More completed the regular season with a 6-0 record, while the second-place Celtics were 4-2.
“We came into this game knowing it would be a battle,” said More’s Caleb Kowalchuk who scored two touchdowns, intercepted a pass and knocked down a potential touchdown pass in the end zone.
“It was an exciting game.”
Bishop Ryan made it a nail-biter when Jacob Grajales caught a seven-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Aaron John with 13.9 seconds remaining.
The Celtics weren’t done yet, either. They recovered a short kickoff and marched down the field with the help of a completed pass and a couple of penalties. The Celtics got as far as the 10-yard line when the final whistle sounded.
“The way it ended took years off my life, that’s for sure,” More coach Chris DeStephanis said.
As for BR coach Brian Grajales, he said, “I knew our players had a lot of fight. We have a championship-calibre team and it took a valiant effort by a formidable opponent like STM to beat us.”
Bishop Ryan struck early by taking advantage of a turnover on More’s opening possession. A high snap sailed over the punter’s head and the Celtics took over at the 10-yard line. When the More defence stiffened, however, BR had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by left-footed kicker Luca Horvat.
Aiden Klindsic-Dovial then got the Knights on the scoreboard with a point by way of a wide 27-yard field-goal.
Running back Kowalchuk gave More the lead for the first time in the second quarter on a four-yard run. That was followed by a two-point conversion carry by quarterback Darian Barnes.
The Knights then took a 16-3 lead into the intermission when Kowalchuk ran back a kick 55 yards for touchdown. On that return, Bishop Ryan surprisingly executed a place kick from deep in its own territory rather than a punt.
“I’m not sure why they did that,” the More coach said. “I’ve never seen it before. It worked out to our advantage, that’s for sure.”
In the third quarter, quarterback John connected with Ben Kingston for a 20-yard touchdown. But a two-yard TD run by running back Joey Jaf-Taylor with 7:27 left restored More’s 12-point bulge.
“Caleb was getting more of the touchdowns,” DeStephanis said, “but Joey, his counterpart, did a ton of work to get us down field.
“Our team is loaded with talent and great athletes. We’re able to pass, we’re able to run and there’s lots of speed. I also think our defence has been outstanding all season.”
Individually, the More coach said Curtis Bell Jr. stood out as the “heart and soul” of the team.
“This kid could go all the way,” DeStephanis said. “He plays tight end, defensive end, defensive tackle and fullback. He had a receiving touchdown this year, a rushing touchdown and an interception.”
Coach Grajales praised the contribution of John. “We’re fortunate to have a quarterback like Aaron,” he said. “Despite being in Grade 9, he picked up the offence pretty quickly. His grasp of the offence allowed us to expand and become a more balanced team this year.”
The only junior team other than More to win a championship since 2012 was Bishop Ryan in 2017. COVID-19 also wiped out one other entire season for all the teams.