St. Joe’s and St. Francis Battle for Title on Buffalo Bill’s A-Turf Field

Simply put, St. Joe’s football coach Dennis Gilbert said there’s no where else he’d rather be tonight than Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s a Thursday night, there’s not another football game in town,” he said. “I can’t think of a reason in the world to miss this game. … We don’t get an opportunity like this in Western New York too often. Two blue chip, Division-I athletes going head-to-head. Man, if I wasn’t involved in the game, I’d still be there to watch it.”

St. Joe’s quarterback Chad Kelly and St. Francis running back Akeel Lynch are both poised to put on a spectacle at 6 p.m. tonight at The Ralph as the top-seeded Marauders take on the second-seeded Red Raiders for the Monsignor Martin Association championship.

Never has the Western New York high school football scene had two players verbally committed to major D-I programs before the season — Kelly to Clemson; Lynch to Boston College — and tonight they will each wrap up their high school career with a league title on the line.

“Oh, it’s going to be great,” Kelly said. “We’re back at The Ralph again for the championship. I mean, what more can you ask than being in the championship again and doing it with your friends? It’s going to be great.”

Kelly and the Marauders barely escaped a monumental upset to rival Canisius a week ago. But Kelly slipped a dump pass to Rod Payne with 18 seconds left, and found Yanni Zulia in the back of the end zone on the 2-point try to set up a matchup many have been waiting for. Lynch rushed for 221 yards and two scores in St. Francis’ 53-8 rout against Timon in the MMAA semi.

The Atlantic Coast Conference-bound playmakers have certainly lived up to the hype during their senior campaigns.

Kelly, the reigning News Player of the Year, set the Western New York single-season passing record (2,842 yards) as well as the MMAA career mark in two seasons (5,001). He became the first player in state history to throw for more than 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 more in a single season. He’s just 110 rushing yards shy of repeating that mark this season.

Lynch, meanwhile, is just 61 yards shy of breaking Zak Kedron’s 2004 single-season MMAA rushing record despite missing 1 1/2 games with an ankle sprain. Lynch has 1,967 yards and 23 TDs on the season.

According to the St. Joe’s stat crew, Lynch rushed for just 96 yards in the Red Raiders’ 27-20 loss on Oct. 1 (he had 107 on 22 carries, according to That game, however, was played on sloppy field conditions at St. Francis. And the Marauders are coming off a game in which they allowed 441 yards on the ground to a Canisius team which lost its star running back midway through the opening quarter.

“If we play like the way we did (against Canisius), we don’t have a chance. The kids know it,” Gilbert said. “We were inside out, outside in, upside down as far as our alignment goes. We were probably not in the right alignment 70 percent of the time. We didn’t give ourselves a chance to make plays, and part of that is on us as coaches.”

Gilbert knows his squad has to be physical, as well. Aside from alignment and tackling, the Marauders just have to stop a 6-foot, 204-pound back who runs a 4.4 40-yard dash, he said with a laugh.

“You’re never going to shut a guy like that down,” Gilbert said. “He’s one of the best that ever played around here. You’re just never going to shut him down. He’s a stud.”

The Marauders avoided Lynch in the MMAA final a year ago in a 49-20 win at The Ralph in which Kelly scored five times (three running, two passing). Lynch missed the final five games of the season with a finger injury.

“We talked about it last year,” Gilbert said. “It’s really hard to get here, but it’s going to be really hard to stay here. We’re at that point now. The challenge is in front of them.”

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