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Elmira Express falls to Rochester Aquinas in State Football Semifinals

Posted Saturday, November 23, 2013 by Mike Johnston

Elmira Express falls to Rochester Aquinas in state football semifinalshttp://www.usatodayhss.com/pressconnects/article/elmira-express-falls-to-rochester-aquinas-in-state-football-semifinals--2013311230058


It took a combination of brutal weather conditions and a physical Rochester Aquinas defense to finally slow down an Elmira running game that had carried the Express to the doorstep of a berth in the state championship game.

The Little Irish held Elmira to 148 rushing yards and 34 points below its season average in a 19-6 victory Saturday night in a New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class AA semifinal in the snow and cold at Sahlen's Stadium.

Luch Pietropaolo ran for 99 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries as Section 5's Aquinas earned a shot at its sixth state championship and first in Class AA. The top-ranked Little Irish (12-0) meets Section 9 champion Monroe-Woodbury in the title game at 6 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.

Elmira finished 10-1 after beating second-ranked Syracuse Christian Brothers Academy last week in the quarterfinals, 24-18, for its first state playoff win as a combined program.

"It was a brutal game," Aquinas head coach Chris Battaglia said. "Both teams played so hard. They were a well-coached, physical team with a lot of tough kids. It was a great game. It was a war of attrition tonight."

Jerry McPeak ran for 82 yards on 25 carries and scored the only Elmira touchdown on an 11-yard run with 2 minutes, 46 seconds left in the first quarter, bringing the Express within 7-6.

The Little Irish defense stiffened after that and held McPeak and Eli Thomas 128 yards below their season average of 266 rushing yards. Thomas had 17 carries for 56 yards.

"Their (defensive) line is pretty good. They're strong, athletic guys," Elmira head coach Jimmy McCauley said. "We had a tough time getting a wall down and getting some space for our guys to run. Tip our hats to the Aquinas guys. Good program and they got the job done tonight."

Elmira scored on a 13-play, 76-yard drive that featured a lot of McPeak out of the double-wing attack. That drive accounted for six of the Express' 10 first downs.

"They were so quick the first quarter our kids were still trying to figure it out, but once we did that I think we played really well," Battaglia said.

Pietropaolo scored on a 3-yard run with 4:31 to go in the first half to extend the Little Irish's lead to 13-6. His first score covered 27 yards less than three minutes into the game after Thomas dropped the ball on a punt attempt and Aquinas took over at Elmira's 27.

Aquinas found some breathing room when highly touted sophomore quarterback Jake Zembiec, who has drawn interest from some of the nation's top college programs, connected with Marcus Conner for a 14-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone.

Zembiec completed 12 of 20 passes for 152 yards despite a tough wind and occasional snow. Temperatures were in the mid 20s and the wind chill was 9 degrees by the second half. The field was covered in snow and ice, minus a few patches of green created by the players' cleats.

"Pretty darn cold there," McCauley said. "When you're playing out there, those things don't seem to get you. It was cold and the wind was blowing. But that kind of goes in our favor when we're on the ground there (running the ball)."

Said Battaglia: "To play under these conditions was probably not fair to either team. It was just very tough."

Despite the snow, there were only three fumbles, all of which were recovered by the offense. The lone turnover came on an interception by Elmira's Kevin Snyder.

Elmira's defense limited Aquinas to its second-lowest point total of the season.

"I thought our front three did a great job and our (linebackers) did a great job of filling some holes and our defensive backs played the ball well," McCauley said. "Just a team effort there -- an 11-man job."

The postgame handshake was interrupted by an altercation that was quickly broken up. McCauley said he didn't see what led to the scrum in the middle of the field.

"We just tried getting the guys separated as soon as possible," he said.

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