It may have taken a little longer than initially anticipated, but the St. Benedict Bears senior boys football team sure seem to be hitting their stride.
"We're still not 100 per cent where I want this team dialed in, but it's getting there," said head coach Junior Labrosse on Sunday evening. "Every week, we're getting closer."
The Lo-Ellen Park Knights can attest to that.
After beating their south end rivals 12-7 in week two of the season back in mid-September, the Knights would see the Bears dominate essentially from start to finish Friday in the semi-final rematch, the St. Benedict lads full measure for a 28-0 victory.
The contest marked the second shutout of the season for a defensive Bears unit that has surrendered only 32 points in five games, less than a touchdown a game, for those who are statistically inclined.
"A good part of this is due to the fact that this is a tight-knit bunch of guys, and they're taking their assignments seriously," said Labrosse. "There's more communication between the middle and outside linebackers, between the linebackers and the defensive ends."
"That was something I always prided myself, as a player, to be a very good communicator, so that the defence knows what the offense is throwing at you. It's something I emphasized a lot this year."
"The other thing is my secret weapon, (assistant coach) John Zulich," added Labrosse. "He's made drastic improvements to our defence, the way we run practices. The guys love the way that he coaches. He has an enthusiasm for the game and he's not afraid to give responsibility to certain individuals."
More critically, after recording just 17 points in their first two games, the St. Benedict offense has now countered with 102 in their three most recent outings.
"I took pressure away from (quarterback) Adam (Rocha)," said Labrosse.
"I sat down with him and told him that for us to win games, it cannot be 100 per cent pressure strictly on him. It had to be a team effort. He had to distribute the ball, we had to run the ball. Early in the season, I'm not sure if he thought he had to prove something, but he seemed to play under a lot of pressure.
"He wasn't being Adam," Labrosse continued. "The stress of feeling like he had to make every play seemed to get to him. We had to take that pressure off him, go in with a game plan and if the game plan doesn't work, then we can talk on the sidelines and figure out what is working."
On Friday, that was pretty much everything, as Rocha ran for a 6-yard touchdown, threw for a pair of TDs to receivers Gabriel Campagnaro (14 yds) and Zack Primeau (10 yds), and handed to linebacker turned fullback Ben Cacciotti (3 yds) for one final score.
The Bears will now face the St. Charles College Cardinals in the city final, as SCC needed a last minute goal-line stand and a second half comeback to unseat the two-time defending champion Lively Hawks 24-20.
Lively started quickly, taking advantage of both a 70-yard punt return and 48-yard run from Tyler Bell, as well as a 7 yard TD run from Ian Carter in establishing a 20-10 lead at the half.
"We didn't panic at half time, because we figured they would be getting tired," said Cardinals head coach Rob Zanatta. "We knew that they would be running a little short on personnel. They were playing more guys both ways than we were.
"The message was simply to keep doing what we're doing, don't panic, and try and gradually win that battle of attrition."
After receiving offensive contributions from both Buyi N'Galamulume (24 yard TD run) and Aidan Ragogna (13 yd FG) in the opening half, St Charles continued to chip away at the lead.
Tristan Day cut the deficit to just three on a third quarter sprint to the end zone (73 yards), with Ragogna deadlocking the contest heading to the fourth with his second three-pointer of the game.
The 2018 all-star kicker then provided the margin of victory in the final quarter, drilling his third field goal of the game through the uprights, with SCC adding one extra rouge in booking their ticket to the final.
"In our first match-up with St. Ben's (a 26-14 loss), we got off the bus and we weren't prepared to play," said Zanatta. "We gave them 12 points in the first two and a half minutes of the game. We have to make sure that we don't do that again. We have to limit Rocha's ability to scramble, we have to wrap up and make our tackles on defence, and we have to not turn the ball over on offense. If we can do all of that, we have a chance to win."
The city final is set for Friday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at the James Jerome Sports Complex.