It was two days before last Sunday's Class AAA high-school football final between East and Penfield. East carried an 8-0 record into the game against the 4-4 Patriots of suburbia, but one Monroe County coach didn't think much of the Orientals.
"Who'd they play?" he asked, suggesting that the City-Catholic league's competition is completely inferior to Monroe County's.
His opinion is understandable. The City-Catholic hadn't produced a football champion since 1996, when East and Marshall won. The coach, however, seemed to forget that in the season opener, East blew out Greece Olympia, last year's Class A runner-up. And he ignored East's victory over Rush-Henrietta in the October 23 semifinal, when the Orientals stormed back from a two-touchdown deficit for a double-overtime win.
The coach felt East coasted against substandard City-Catholic teams. But now he might want to reconsider his thinking after the Orientals pounded Penfield at University of Rochester's Fauver Stadium, 48-14, for the AAA title.
The Orientals are good, as it turns out.
East ran for 446 yards against Penfield. It passed only once --- a touchdown from Larry Mitchum to Alton McKinney. Most of the night, 190-pound tailback Anthony Rios ran behind 345-pound right tackle Brandon McDowell and 339-pound right guard Quinten Moorehead.
In high school, one 300-pound-plus lineman is a luxury, but two, lined up side by side? That's a difficult battle for a high-school lineman or linebacker. Thus, Rios --- who has scored more than 20 touchdowns this year --- rushed for 258 yards and three touchdowns against Penfield.
On Sunday at 4 p.m., the Orientals face AA-champion Webster Thomas at Fauver for a spot in the state tournament. Thomas upset powerhouse Webster Schroeder. Unless the Titans take a big lead that throws East off its game, I don't see how they'll be able to contain Rios, McDowell, and Moorehead.
Of course, Thomas beat Schroeder, which runs the ball like East. But the Orientals are not one-dimensional. The team runs because the running game has been nearly unstoppable. Yet, when it's time to throw --- as it was when the Orientals trailed RH by two touchdowns --- East is capable. Larry Mitchum completed seven passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns against the Royal Comets.
Last year, City-Catholic teams lost all four sectional quarterfinals they played against their suburban counterparts. None of the league's Class A schools even made sectionals. This year, East and Franklin went farther than people anticipated.
Franklin was particularly noteworthy. The team headed into the year with a 25-game losing streak, but played well enough to finish 5-4 and earn a spot in the Class A semifinal against Victor, which it lost.
Overall, City-Catholic football is progressing, and that's partly because of extensive off-season workout programs, and because city players are now allowed to sign out helmets and shoulder pads for summer football camps. East coach Paul Brigandi said that in the past, the city school district narrowly interpreted a New York State high school rule in a manner that prevented kids from borrowing equipment to attend off-season camps requiring it.
While the suburban and Catholic schools were attending summer team camps and preparing for the season, the city kids were forced to wait for tryouts in mid-August. Brigandi had complained that the city's players were being deprived.
Not anymore. Franklin coach Pete Haugh called the new interpretation "huge," allowing the city teams to get a head start on the season like everyone else.
Last summer, East players attended the weeklong Webster Schroeder camp, along with Penfield, Webster Thomas, East Rochester/Gananda, Brighton, Wayne, and McQuaid.
"The [East] players were like kids in a candy store," said Schroeder coach Tony Bianchi, who added that the teams participating in the Class AAA and Class AA finals this year were present at his camp.
The off-season activities have brought a new focus to City-Catholic football, shining a spotlight on a sport that boys' basketball typically overshadows. The excitement has sparked Franklin to restart its junior varsity program. East now has 40-plus players on its varsity, JV, and modified rosters, plus a new $2.5 million stadium with lights.
As Brigandi says, "Things are on the upswing."
Still, disadvantages remain. In the suburbs, players can conceivably play many years together in pee-wee leagues prior to high school. That means they know their teammates' strengths and styles when they're freshmen. The players can be effectively groomed for the high-school program.
In the City-Catholic league, because there are no neighborhood-based high schools, coaches have little idea who will be attending their schools. So the football teams are really constructed from scratch when players are 9th graders, and coaches can only hope they jell in one or two years.
That's what makes East's run even more remarkable.
When I was a McQuaid student during the late '80s, I watched East play the Knights in basketball at the War Memorial on several occasions. East students persistently chanted "East... High... rocks the house... East High rocks the house" to the backbeat of this cool rhythm section.
This Sunday, East High might just rock the house again. You should go.