Matt Russo was nervous. His routine was upset and he wasn’t completely sure how things would work out for his Horace Mann football team as it prepared for its Hudson Valley Football League semifinal against Newark Academy last Friday.
The game already was pushed up a day because of last weekend’s nor’easter. And Russo, well, he’s a creature of habit.
“I just think for me it’s more the routine,” he said. “We never play on a day when we have school and a full day of classes. So it was just the lack of routine that made me a little nervous.”
Turns out Russo fretted for nothing as his Lions scored on their first three possessions, then opened the second half with an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Matthew Chung as Horace Mann rolled into its fourth straight HVFL championship game with a never-in-doubt 34-7 victory over Newark Academy.
The Lions will now host Dalton on Saturday for the league championship. Horace Mann defeated Dalton 7-0 in last year’s title game.
Unlike Russo, Horace Mann senior quarterback Brody McGuinn had no angst entering the game. And rightly so. The Lions had faced Newark Academy on Oct. 13, rolling to a 34-0 victory in that contest. So McGuinn expected more of the same in the semifinal matchup.
“Yeah we were pretty confident coming into this game,” said McGuinn, who threw for three touchdowns in the win. “We took them apart two weeks ago and we just wanted to do the same thing. It was a big game because it was a playoff game so they could still come back and take us out. But we managed to take them out.”
It took only a couple of minutes for the Lions to pounce on the Minutemen as Matt Kaufman capped the Lions’ opening drive with a three-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead just over five minutes into the game.
But that was only the beginning. After Newark was forced to punt on its next possession, Horace Mann responded with a six-play, 56-yard drive that culminated in a 20-yard scoring toss from McGuinn to Kelvin Smith, and it was 13-0 Lions when the extra point attempt was blocked. The Lions’ lead swelled to 20-0 early in the second when they took over on the Minutemen’s eight-yard line following a botched punt attempt. From there it took just three plays before McGuinn found Ben Metzner with an eight-yard TD toss.
If the game wasn’t already decided at that point, Chung put the final nail in Newark’s coffin when he returned the second half kickoff 80 yards for his score. The Lions added one final tally, a 42-yard scoring pass from McGuinn to Ray Silverman, for a 34-0 lead. And all that was left to do was celebrate.
“A lot of games this season we’ve been up three or four touchdowns at the half,” said Silverman, who also leads a stout Lions’ defense that has allowed just 26 points over its last four games while registering two shutouts in that span.
“And we were able to do that again today.”
As well as the Lions have played — six consecutive wins since an opening-day loss to Riverdale — it’s difficult to decide which side of the ball Horace Mann is dominating more?
“I think we’re both really clicking,” McGuinn said. “On offense we struggled a little bit at the beginning of the season, but we’ve really picked it up towards the end.”
The Lions have scored better than 30 points in three of their last four games while notching 26 points in the other contest.
With the semifinals celebration now over, the Lions turn their attention to their fourth straight title game Saturday. For seniors like McGuinn and Silverman — who already have captured two titles in their tenure — it’s a chance for a third championship, and to go out on top.
“That would be amazing,” McGuinn said. “That’s all I want to do.”
Russo also hopes for one last shining moment for his celebrated senior class.
“I think it would mean a lot to them,” Russo said. “This senior group, in particular, their leadership is tremendous. The way they have taken the underclassmen under their wing is off the charts. But even more, how they really dedicated themselves in the offseason in the weight room and got themselves better in other aspects of their game.
“And they’re really good kids. They never care who gets the glory. They really enjoy playing together as a team, and they make coming to practice and games a ton of fun.”