Last year felt like a culmination, even for Ryan Brannigan.
He was a junior on a senior-laden team, and he helped those seniors finish their careers with a storybook championship, Hendricken’s first since 1996. Brannigan even scored the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
As he celebrated on the Cranston Stadium turf last year, he knew he’d be back on the team for another season, but he had to wonder if his culmination, his final chapter, his once-in-a-lifetime moment was happening as a junior – and leaving with those seniors.
Did he ever think it was actually a beginning? Did he ever think he’d be back?
“To be honest, I didn’t,” Brannigan said Saturday.
And why would he? He was one of the only Hawks coming back with experience – and he was moving to quarterback, where he’d never played at the varsity level. The Hawks had major question marks at almost every position. They had modest goals. Back-to-back championships didn’t even seem like a possibility.
But there the Hawks were on Saturday, back on the Cranston Stadium turf and celebrating perhaps the most improbable win in Rhode Island Super Bowl history. La Salle came in with an unbeaten league record and had beaten Hendricken 39-14 in a regular-season meeting.
But the Hawks came back from a 14-10 deficit in the final minutes to win 17-14. Brannigan threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Laionel Cintron with 55 seconds left.
“I still can’t believe it,” Brannigan said.
That’s not surprising. Brannigan’s journey – and his team’s journey – is pretty hard to believe.
Brannigan was the quarterback on his freshman team at Hendricken. As a sophomore, he played defensive back on the varsity, and last year, he did it all for the Super Bowl champs, earning first-team All-State honors as a wide receiver.
This year, he was a star with a new home – quarterback, where he’d never taken a varsity snap. And he had an almost completely new cast around him. His top two offensive weapons – Cintron and running back Louis Falcone – were seniors who had barely played.
There were growing pains, but the Hawks always hoped.
They wanted their own culmination.
“In the beginning I said, let’s make the playoffs,” Brannigan said. “Because once you make the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Slowly but surely, the Hawks found themselves. Brannigan was a threat to run, of course, but he was also getting more adept at throwing the ball. If the Hawks needed a big play, they were comfortable going to the air.
Brannigan’s emergence mirrored the team’s improvement – suddenly the Hawks weren’t just an inexperienced team. They were a dangerous team. They surged to second place and rolled over a tough South Kingstown team in the semifinals.
That journey was incredible enough.
Then came Saturday.
The Hawks went up 10-0 but watched La Salle come back. When the Rams went up 14-10 with 8:04 left in the game, it looked like the Hawks were finally at the end of the line.
But Brannigan and his teammates had come this far. They weren’t going to stop.
After taking over with four minutes left, Brannigan threw a perfect deep pass to Aaron Webb for a 36-yard gain to the La Salle 41. He hit Laionel Cintron for seven yards one play later then picked up five yards on a pair of runs.
With time ticking down, the Hawks stayed calm. Brannigan misfired on third down but connected with Cintron on a quick out to convert on fourth down.
On the next play, Brannigan threw a perfect fade pass to the left corner of the end zone, and Cintron went up and got it for the game-winning touchdown.
“Ryan came up big throwing the ball down the stretch, and that pass to Laionel at the end,” said head coach Keith Croft. “That’s what you want – you want the ball in your best player’s hands. He had some big runs in the first half, but they shut him down in the second half. He had to go to the air, and he came through.”
Brannigan completed four of five passes on the drive, and he celebrated in the same end zone where he scored the game-winning touchdown in last year’s Super Bowl.
“Brannigan – he was unbelievable,” said senior Andrew Breting, the starting center.
This one wasn’t over quite yet, but just when the Rams looked like they might threaten on a deep pass to Josh Morris, Brannigan was there to break it up.
On this day, why not?
“He’s a big-game player,” Croft said. “I think part of that is it almost forces him to stay focused and compartmentalize everything. That’s what he did today.”
When it was over, Brannigan received the MVP award. He’d thrown for 106 yards and rushed for 123. It was well-deserved.
He posed for photos and did interviews, and then he found some of his former teammates, just outside the fence. He celebrated with them, just like last year.
At the other end of the field, his current teammates packed in for photos with the trophy. They realized Brannigan wasn’t there. They yelled for him, and he eventually came running. He slid into the scene, right in front.
This was his culmination, his final chapter, his once-in-a-lifetime moment.
For Brannigan, it was twice-in-a-lifetime.
“We just put it together,” Brannigan said. “It feels awesome. Everyone got so much better from the beginning of the year. Two rings, MVP – it feels amazing.”