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Sunday, September 11, 2011
9/11 serves as backdrop for NYC football tripleheader

By By Lucas O'Neill

Xaverian High School football team
Brooklyn Xaverian (N.Y.) players raise their helmets to the sky at the close of the national anthem in Middletown, N.Y., on Saturday, Sept. 10.
In the grand scheme of things, sports are trivial. They’re games. Rarely is that more clear than on a day like today, the 10-year anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But there’s also little doubt that in the wake of 9/11, sports helped many people move on in the wake of the devastation, to return to a kind of normalcy.

There was, for instance, the football game between the NYPD and FDNY held at Giants Stadium in May 2002, that year’s exceptional iteration of the annual showdown between NYC’s Bravest and Finest.

Tomas Batis, a lieutenant with the Ladder 39 company in the Bronx, played in that game. He’s also an assistant coach for the Pine Bush football team, which yesterday participated in an event in which sports served another function — as a vehicle to raise money for the victims.

Middletown High School hosted a football triple-header between Section IX and CHSFL teams on Saturday, with all proceeds going to 9/11 victim and first-responder funds.

Batis arranged for the Pine Bush coaching staffing to don FDNY hats for the game, and for the placement of Sept. 11 memorial stickers on the team’s helmets. Many in attendance on Saturday made similar gestures, and NYPD and FDNY gear abounded.

“It’s a little touch that shows we’re aware and we sympathize with the victims and their loss,” Batis said.

Brooklyn Xaverian lost 23 alumni on 9/11. Coach Joe DiSiena, himself a 2000 alum of the school, knew that his team’s game against Monroe-Woodbury, while mostly about football, also carried some added significance because of that.

“They were in a position to represent the city for 9/11,” DiSiena said. “It was an opportunity for us to go out and take care of business with more than football at stake.”

There was no gate for the games, which pitted Pine Bush and Xavier (Manhattan), Xaverian and Monroe-Woodbury, and Middletown and Stepinac (White Plains). Instead, people were asked to donate.

Through the first two games, more than $2,000 had been raised between straight donation and 50/50 raffles, and Middletown athletic director David Coates said the finally tally is likely to be more than $4,000.

“People were very generous,” he said. “Everything went off extremely well and all the schools were appreciative of being involved in the event.”

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In the first game, John Thorn hit a 31-yard field goal with 6.1 seconds remaining to give Pine Bush a 17-14 victory over Xavier.

It was only the second field goal the junior had ever attempted; he missed his first, from a similar distance, last week.

“I was really nervous when we first went out there,” he said. “They tried to ice me with the timeout.”

The marquee matchup was Monroe-Woodbury, a perennial power and defending state champ, against Xaverian, the city’s top-ranked CHSFL team and one loaded with Division I-caliber talent.

It looked at first like M-W would do what it usually does: roll. Quarterback Ryan Spelman put the Crusaders up 14-0 in the first quarter on a pair of keepers, the second of which was a 42-yard scamper.

But then Xaverian and its first-year quarterback, junior Zach Kearney, settled in, scoring 32 unanswered points and emerging with a 32-21 victory. After an interception on the team’s second drive, Kearney was sensational, rushing for three touchdowns and throwing another. He finished 17-of-21 for 170 passing yards and rushed for 107 yards on 20 carries.

“Before the game we talked about responding,” said DiSiena. “We knew a team like Monroe, with that kid of talent, was going to make plays.”

After the first quarter, Xaverian held Spelman mostly in check. He finished with three touchdowns and 133 rushing yards.

M-W coach Pat D’Aliso talked before the game about the needing to challenge his young team, and there was no better way to do that than with a senior-laden Xaverian squad.

“I think it’ll help us down the road,” he said. “We need to go out and find the best football teams if we’re going to get back to the playoffs and back to the (Carrier) Dome.”

In the finale, Stepinac defeated host Middletown, 41-20.

Stepinac came away with four interceptions, which proved decisive.

"Against a good team like Stepinac you can't turn the ball over four times," said Middletown coach Steve Barone. "It's a learning experience for when we play the Monroes and Newburghs and quality teams in our conference."

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There was a delicate balance negotiated Saturday. Coates said the event was meant to honor those who experienced — or were left in the wake — of the events in Manhattan on that September day 10 years ago. But event organizers wanted to keep the ceremonial aspects understated.

“We just wanted to do more of a remembrance,” Coates said. “It’s not a celebration.”

A moment of silence was observed before each game. At the close of the national anthem, Xaverian’s players lifted their helmets to the sky. Kearney was just 6 in 2001, but even he said he remembered where he was and what he was doing when the attacks happened. The significance of the day was not lost on the team, he said.

“The school had a lot of people that passed on 9/11, so it was an honor to be able to come in and represent them.”