Fast learner carries STM to junior championship

No experience? No problem.

Even though running back Michael Chris-Ike took up the sport of football only three months ago, he almost single-handedly powered the St. Thomas More Knights to the 2013 Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association junior football championship.

Grade 9 student Michael Chris-Ike (22) rushed for 180 yards on 32 carries and scored both touchdowns for the Knights, to lead his team to HWCAA victory.  (Photo: Gerry Graham)

Grade 9 student Michael Chris-Ike (22) rushed for 180 yards on 32 carries and scored both touchdowns for the Knights, to lead his team to HWCAA victory. (Photo: Gerry Graham)

The Grade 9 student rushed for 180 yards on 32 carries as the first-place Knights defeated the Bishop Tonnos Titans 14-7 at McMaster’s Ron Joyce Stadium on Friday (Nov. 22). It was the second consecutive league title for More and its fifth-straight appearance in the final.

Chris-Ike also scored both touchdowns for the winners, including a clutch four-yard burst to break the tie with 24.7 seconds left on the clock.

“Number 22 (Chris-Ike) had not touched a football until Aug. 26 of this year,” More coach Peter Luvisa said with amazement. “He didn’t know how to hold it. He didn’t know how to take it. He knew nothing about the sport.”

Fourteen of More’s first 17 offensive plays were handoffs from quarterback Zack Beno to Chris-Ike. And it was 6-foot-2, 180-pound Chris-Ike who opened the scoring midway through the second quarter on a four-yard run off left tackle.

“He’s an absolute specimen,” Luvisa said of his young star. “He was actually running on a sprained ankle today, as well. We had him taped up.”

When asked about his injury during the Knights’ post-game, on-field celebrations, Chris-Ike said. “My ankle was really bad. I had to fight it.”

Luvisa said St. Thomas More had heard in advance it would be getting an incredibly fast and well-built student coming to the school this year. But Chris-Ike’s athletic background happened to be in track and field, basketball and soccer.

“We were prepared for somebody, but we had no clue he would be like that,” Luvisa said. “He’s just a phenom.”

After the final football game of the season to be played at McMaster, Chris-Ike said: “I like football a lot. It’s really fun.”

The HWCAA junior football champion St. Thomas More Knights.  (Photo: Gerry Graham)

The HWCAA junior football champion St. Thomas More Knights. (Photo: Gerry Graham)

Bishop Tonnos (4-2) lost 9-6 to More during the regular schedule. In the playoffs, the Titans topped the St. Mary Crusaders 28-2 before upsetting the Cardinal Newman Cardinals 27-17 in a semi-final. More earned an opening-round bye before nipping the Cathedral Gaels 11-8.

“I’m proud of the way our kids played hard right until the end,” said Tonnos coach Sean McPhee. “It was a close game. They were a little better than we were today.

“We had trouble containing No. 22. He’s a heck of a football player.”

The Titans featured an outstanding runner of their own. Daniel Skuse was Tonnos’s leading ground gainer, rambling for 69 yards on 22 carries. He was also key in the semi-final victory over Newman, scoring two long TD runs.

“Daniel is our franchise player,” said McPhee, whose cousin Dennis is defensive line coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “We centre our offence around him. In big situations, we want him to carry the ball.”

It was Skuse who accounted for the lone Tonnos touchdown. After More turned the ball over on a fourth-down-and-short-yardage-play at its own 32-yard line, Skuse carried four consecutive times. And on the final handoff, with 22 seconds remaining in the half, he scored on a five-yard run. Christian Bilato added the convert.

Skuse’s father, Darryl, was a high school star running back at Westmount. He also won a Vanier Cup as a member of the Guelph Gryphons in 1984 and, with the Hamilton Hurricanes, was selected by that junior football club as one of its all-time all-stars. Darryl served as the offensive co-ordinator with the Tonnos senior team that advanced all the way to the league final this season. And on that team, as a running back, was Daniel’s older brother, Daryl.

McPhee also coached Daryl at the junior high school level three years ago when they won the league championship.

“It’s quite the family,” McPhee said. “The father was a great player. Daniel and Daryl are similar-type runners. The tradition was passed down. They’re gifted, fast, tough kids. They’re not very tall but they play with big hearts.”

Tevin Matuga booted two converts for the Knights and came up with a pair of interceptions as a defensive halfback.

The final scoring drive for More started at its own 45-yard line. Chris-Ike carried the load on each of the team’s seven plays en route to the end zone.

Luvisa, who traditionally wears the colours of the opposing team on game day, apologized to his team at the intermission for making some “poor coaching decisions” on fourth down. “I challenged them to correct my error,” Luvisa said. “They pulled my backside out of the fire.”

Hamilton and Halton are the only areas using four downs for junior football. Other school districts choose to go with three downs.