It took nearly the entire second half for Bishop Hendricken’s offense to get in gear during Saturday’s Division I Super Bowl, but when it finally did, it went on a drive that would define its season and lead to one of the biggest upsets in Rhode Island history.
Trailing 14-10 with exactly four minutes remaining in the game, the Hawks embarked on an eight-play, 62-yard drive that culminated in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Brannigan to Laionel Cintron in the left corner of the end zone with 55 seconds left. That gave Hendricken an improbable 17-14 victory over top-seeded and previously unbeaten La Salle.
It was the second consecutive D-I championship for the Hawks, who defeated Portsmouth 20-17 last season. In that game, it was undefeated Hendricken that was the favorite. On Saturday, few thought the Hawks had much of a chance of knocking off a La Salle team that had steamrolled opponents all season long and had beaten Hendricken 39-14 on Sept. 16.
“Words can’t describe the feeling right now,” said senior Aaron Webb, who had a crucial 36-yard catch on the final drive. “It’s the best feeling in the world, going back-to-back. People tell you you can’t do something and you do it, it just feels awesome.”
Hendricken, which captured the eighth championship in school history, won back-to-back Super Bowls for the first time since 1995-96, the final two of a string of three straight championships.
And the Hawks did it this year in style, becoming the first team ever with two or more regular-season losses to knock off an undefeated team in the Super Bowl. Hendricken was 6-2 in D-I play in the regular season, while La Salle was 8-0.
“The feeling is unreal right now,” Cintron said. “It’s soaking in. We’re going to go back to school and still feel unreal on Monday. It’s crazy.”
Hendricken went up 10-0 in the first half, only to see La Salle come all the way back and take the four-point lead on a 6-yard Tyneil Cooper touchdown run with 8:04 remaining, which gave the Rams their first lead of the game.
It looked like that would be the winning margin, as the Hawks had only 11 total yards of offense in the second half prior to their final drive. But with time ticking down on their hopes for a second straight title, the Hawks went away from their usual ground game and took to the air.
Brannigan completed four of five passes on the drive – including three to Cintron – and Hendricken converted a fourth-and-5 play right before the touchdown pass.
“We went to throwing the ball,” said Brannigan, who was named the game’s MVP. “Those quick outs came open. That eventually opened up the fade, so that worked out. We executed.”
The drive started out on the wrong foot, as Hendricken took a 15-yard block in the back penalty on first down, pushing it back to its own 23-yard line. But on the next play, Brannigan made a perfect throw to a streaking Webb up the middle of the field.
Webb caught the ball cleanly before being hit hard by a La Salle defender and staying down for a few moments. Somehow, though, he hung on to the ball for a 36-yard gain.
“It just stuck,” Webb said. “There was no way I was letting go of that one.”
Set up at La Salle’s 41-yard line, Brannigan went back to work. He drew the Rams offsides on first down, ran for a yard on the next play and then found Cintron for a seven-yard completion and a first down.
He ran for three yards on the next play and two more on second down, before throwing an incompletion on third down. That set up fourth down, and he calmly found Cintron on the left side for an eight-yard gain and another first down.
“They kind of shut our running game down, and Ryan came up big throwing the ball down the stretch,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said.
On the ensuing play, from the 15-yard line, Brannigan lofted the ball up high to the left side and Cintron leaped to make a difficult catch with a La Salle defender right alongside him, giving the Hawks the lead. Bobby Lineberger’s extra point made it 17-14.
“The play was spread right,” Cintron said. “They tagged me backside, Y fade. The kid is fast, but he’s short. I came inside and then out. He had me by the shoulder pads and I was waiting for a flag, but then I was like, ‘I have to catch it. I’m in the end zone.’ I got my hands on it and brought it down. When I saw the ref put his two hands up it felt great.”
There were still 55 seconds left for the Rams, however, and they nearly got themselves into field goal range with time still on the clock. With just 13 seconds remaining, quarterback Anthony Francis fired a deep pass for Josh Morris on the left side. The ball hit Morris in the hands, but Brannigan came over from his safety position to deliver a hit that jarred the ball loose and caused it to fall incomplete.
One play later, La Salle turned the ball over on downs and Brannigan needed just one kneel down to seal the win.
“Surreal,” Croft said. “It’s probably one of the most intense football games that we’ve played in a while. Somewhat similar to last year’s Super Bowl for us, the Portsmouth win. You just had two teams that refused to quit.”
Hendricken’s final drive came on the heels of a gutsy decision by Croft, who elected to punt the ball on fourth-and-3 from his team’s own 47-yard line with six minutes remaining in the game.
The Hawks’ coach hoped that his defense could come up big and give the offense one last shot to regain the lead.
And it did just that, as La Salle went three-and-out before punting the ball right back to Hendricken, setting the stage for the game-winning drive.
“My coaches on the sidelines were yelling at me to fake it,” Croft said about his team’s punt. “And I said no, not with six minutes left and two timeouts. I said, ‘Our defense has played alright. We’re going to get the ball back one more time.’ Fortunately, we had just enough time to get it in and hold them out.”
Hendricken went up 7-0 just over four minutes into the game. Webb picked off Francis on the fifth play from scrimmage, and Brannigan ran the ball in from 21 yards out on third-and-14 for a touchdown. Lineberger converted the extra point.
On the Hawks’ next possession, they drove all the way down the field before settling for a 30-yard field goal attempt, which Lineberger also converted for the 10-0 lead.
The Rams then found their footing, going on a 16-play, 68-yard drive that was capped with a 3-yard Francis touchdown run and a Peter Picirelli extra point to make it a 10-7 game with eight minutes remaining in the first half.
After a Hendricken punt, the Rams looked primed to take the lead when they moved the ball all the way down to Hendricken’s 13-yard line. But on a third down, the Hawks’ Marco DelVecchio stepped in front of an errant Francis pass attempt on the right side and picked it off, ending the threat.
The game remained 10-7 until Cooper’s touchdown run gave La Salle the lead in the fourth quarter. That score came at the end of a 16-play drive.
The Rams out-gained Hendricken 278 to 269, but the Hawks largely contained La Salle’s two biggest offensive weapons, Francis and Morris.
Morris ran for 99 yards on 23 carries, while Francis picked up 102 on 21 attempts. All season, those two have picked up big chunks of yardage for La Salle, but on Saturday, Hendricken limited those momentum-shifting plays. The Hawks also forced three Francis interceptions.
“They had a few (big plays), but that’s something that we talked all week about,” Croft said. “You have got to contain the big plays. I don’t think we shut Francis down and I don’t think we shut Morris down, but I think we contained them enough where we had life. We had a few turnovers, and those things, they just kept rolling.”
Brannigan led Hendricken with 123 yards on 20 carries, while Louis Falcone added 40 yards on 12 carries. Brannigan also threw for 106 yards, with Cintron on the receiving end of four of those passes for 55 yards. Webb had two catches for 51 yards.
Hendricken’s victory was its sixth straight to end the season. It was 3-2 in league play after a 35-14 loss to East Providence on Oct. 21 before defeating Portsmouth, Cranston West and Barrington to round out its D-I slate and capture the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
It also beat Toll Gate on Thanksgiving before taking out South Kingstown in the semifinals and eventually knocking off La Salle for the title.
“Last year’s (title) was great, but I think this year’s meant a lot more,” Webb said. “People expected us to win last year; people didn’t expect us to win this year. We did it. We knew we could. It’s just awesome.”