Amazing and awesome were how coaches and players from two Catholic high schools in the archdiocese described their participation in the first “Battle for the Bridge” at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Cardinal Hayes High School and Iona Preparatory School represented the archdiocese in the football weekend that began with a Mass and dinner for the six participating teams Sept. 13. Father Justin Cinnante, O. Carm., chaplain of Iona Prep, celebrated the Mass, and Father Joseph Tierney, president of Cardinal Hayes, served as a concelebrant.
Three games with a New York Catholic high school competing against a New Jersey Catholic high school took place the next day on the field where the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets play.
“The opportunity to compete at MetLife Stadium was an amazing experience,” Iona Prep offensive guard Scott Becker told CNY. “It was a dream come true for my teammates and I to play against a New Jersey school on such a big stage.
“The dinner reception the night before with all six teams in one room was very special. You could feel a real sense of brotherhood and love for the game.”
The event was created by Iona Prep football coach Joe Spagnolo and run in partnership with the National Catholic High School Football Association (NCHSFA). Some 6,500 spectators attended the three games.
The New York Giants stepped up, too. Late Giants owner Wellington Mara and his late wife, Ann, had four sons, including Giants President and CEO John Mara, and nine grandsons attend Iona Prep. The New Rochelle school’s home games are played at Wellington T. Mara Field.
“The New York Giants’ and the Mara family’s hospitality and generosity for the Battle for the Bridge is what really made it a huge success,” said Shelley Zambardi Hineline, director of events at NCHSFA. “They took this event to the next level to make it special for all the players and schools involved.”
Twelve former Giants participated in pairs to serve as honorary captains for the six teams.
“It was an honor and a privilege to get the opportunity to represent New York and (the Catholic High School Football League) at MetLife Stadium,” Spagnolo said. “It was a first-class event, and our boys had an amazing experience.”
Iona Prep and St. Anthony’s of Huntington, L.I., came away with victories. St. Anthony’s was a 16-14 winner over Delbarton and Iona Prep followed with a 41-21 victory over Pope John XXIII.
Quarterback Darius Wilson completed 19 of 31 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries for the Gaels (2-0 overall). Franklin McFadden III had 20 carries for 141 yards and a touchdown, and Alex Williams caught five passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
“Playing at MetLife showed our team that if we work hard and stay focused, we can accomplish anything,” said Becker, who was named the game’s most valuable player. “When we were training for this, we were so excited for this opportunity that it brought a new level of intensity to our practices. There was a sense of anticipation through the whole school community for this event, not just the football team.”
In the nightcap, Cardinal Hayes suffered a 33-7 loss to defending New Jersey state champ St. Joseph’s. The Cardinals trailed, 20-0, before Jalen Smith ran for his team’s only touchdown late in the first half. St. Joseph’s scored two touchdowns early in the second half to pull away.
“We kept fighting and stood in there,” said Cardinal Hayes football coach CJ O’Neil. “The whole event was everything to promote Catholic high schools and Catholic high school football. Hundreds of teens were in a room to celebrate the Eucharist at Mass and to sit down for dinner. I was in awe.
“It was an awesome experience. I can’t thank the Maras enough for setting it up and I hope we’ll get invited back.”