A Season to Remember The 2016 saint stephen's falcons

In 2016, Saint Stephen's football completed a journey that seemed unimaginable just five years earlier. From the struggles of an 0-9 season under first-year head coach Tod Creneti in 2011, to a historic campaign that included a run of 11 consecutive victories and culminated in the school's first state title - SSES hoisted the Sunshine State Athletic Conference Independent State Championship trophy following a heart-stopping, and improbable, 21-14 comeback victory over Vero Beach Saint Edwards School on Nov. 19 at The Master's Academy in Oviedo.

This is the story of that championship season . . .

"When people talk about Saint Stephen's, there's a lot to talk about. It's a tremendous place academically. We do a lot of things with the arts. We come to compete on the football field and come to compete as athletes, as well. That's part of the story." - Head Coach Tod Creneti
The cancellation of a preseason game due to inclement weather and a 2-touchdown loss to Community School of Naples opened the season with more of a whimper than a bang, but it proved to be no more than a blip.

The Falcons bounced back from the loss to CSN in a big way on Sept. 2, setting the tone for the rest of the season and exorcising some demons with a dominating, 41-6 win over Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic. The Hawks were the only team to defeat Saint Stephen's during the 2015 regular season, and ended the Falcons' dream of a SSAC championship a few weeks later with a 33-0 rout in the 2015 Florida Bowl.

A rousing, 27-24 win at St. Petersburg Calvary Christian the following week, erased any doubt. SSES scored 21 unanswered points in the last 9:35 of the game to roar back, led by newcomer Chase Brown, who ran for 85 yards and two scores in his first action as a Falcon. Next up was a date with local rival Bradenton Christian - the first meeting between the schools since 2010.

The Falcons set the tone right away against BCS. On the first play from scrimmage, Chase Brown raced 64 yards for a touchdown. SSES scored the game’s first 28 points, including two touchdowns within the first 43 seconds, and recorded a 49-20 victory over the Panthers.

The Falcons (3-1, 1-0) took a 35-6 lead into halftime and invoked the running clock mercy rule early in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Fred Billy finished the game with 150 passing yards and Brown collected 148 yards on the ground, with 112 of those yards in the first quarter.

“I just think our kids were ready to go,” Creneti told the Bradenton Herald. “I think they really wanted to play. To get up 14-0 was great, but at the same time we had to caution them and make sure we continued to play hard.”

With Billy sidelined by a hand injury, the Falcons found an unexpected hero the next week. Freshman Cam Vining stepped in at quarterback and the Falcons produced all 336 yards of offense and seven touchdowns on the ground en route to a 48-0 romp over St. Petersburg Keswick Christian. Chase Brown, Ace Murrell, and Demetrius Davis accounted for 173 yards and four touchdowns. Vining, Ryan Thompson, and Sydney Brown ran for the others, and the Saint Stephen's defense held Keswick to less than 100 yards of total offense.

With the Falcons now hitting on all cylinders, another rivalry game loomed, against first-year conference foe Out-of-Door Academy. But the game itself would actually prove to be much less intriguing than a personal story developing off the field.

After more than two years on the sidelines because of a heart condition, senior linebacker Michael Burch was cleared to play. The story of his return dominated local headlines in anticipation. He ended up playing nearly 30 snaps vs. ODA and was a stalwart of the Falcons defense for the rest of the season, finishing among the team leaders in tackles with nearly 40.

After being postponed from Friday night until a sweltering Saturday afternoon because of the looming threat of Hurricane Matthew, the Falcons took care of business against the ODA Thunder to win the Headmaster's Cup for the fourth consecutive season. Billy and Chase Brown again stood out in the 41-18 victory. The duo accounted for more than 260 yards of total offense. Brown established a new season-high with 162 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 11 and 67 yards. Billy ran for two scores and threw for another as SSES improved to 5-1 and 3-0 in the SSAC.

Up next were a league game against St. Petersburg Shorecrest and a non-conference tuneup versus Seffner Christian to finish the regular season.

After mistake-prone SSES fell quickly behind Shorecrest by two scores, the Falcons took control to secure their first SSAC Coral Bay Division title with a 56-28 win. Fred Billy shook off an early fumble and interception to show why he's one of the area's most dangerous offensive players. Billy ran for 157 yards and three second-half touchdowns. He also threw two scoring passes to Demetrius Davis.

“For years here, he really had to be the guy who made plays for us,” Creneti said of his star quarterback. “He’s in a position now where he’s got people around him who can make plays, as well, and he can focus more on being a distributor, making good decisions and making plays when they are there instead of trying to force them.”

Chase Brown also continued to prove he's one of those playmakers, piling up amazing numbers. Despite just carrying the football six times against Shorecrest, he sprinted for TD runs of 67 and 77 yards and finished with a season-high 213 yards on the ground.

To prepare for their playoff run, the Falcons next faced a stiff test from FHSAA post-season contender Seffner Christian. Receiver/linebacker Peyton Vining proved to be the star of the game as SSES won a 42-33 shootout. The senior helped the Falcons jump out to a 21-0 lead with a 25-yard TD reception and secured the win by making a solid tackle to deny the Crusaders a tying 2-point conversion late in the fourth quarter.

Big plays came from every direction. Demetrius Davis thwarted Seffner Christian by returning an interception 98 yards for a score and Billy picked up 108 of his 171 rushing yards in the second half. It was the Falcons' seventh straight win and provided momentum heading into the first round of the SSAC playoffs.

Spring Hill Bishop McLaughlin provided the opponent for the Falcons' first-ever home football playoff game on Oct. 28, and it was a contest SSES controlled from the start. The Falcons won 49-21 after jumping out to a 35-0 lead. The usual suspects shined for SSES. Fred Billy ran for two scores and threw a 10-yard TD pass to Demetrius Davis. Chase Brown carried the ball 13 times for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Following the game, five Falcons received word that they were named All-Conference performers - first team kicker Alex Virgilio and offensive tackle Josh Stevens, and second-team QB Billy, RB Brown and safety Letherio Jones, Jr.

Alex Virgilio | Josh Stevens | Letherio Jones

By virtue of their win over Bishop McLaughlin, the Falcons played host to a second-round game on Nov. 4 against Zephyrhills Christian. As expected, the contest was tight, but Sydney Brown broke things open with a 47-yard punt return touchdown with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter and SSES went on to a 34-14 win.

Chase Brown again tilted things in the Falcons' favor after a 7-7 halftime tie. Brown ran for 143 of his 167 yards and two TDs in the second half, which put him over 1,000 yards for the season and pushed SSES to the SSAC Coral League championship game the following week at Lecanto Seven Rivers Christian.

"We just had a huge intensity boost. Coming out of halftime, coach told us that we needed to pick it up. That’s what got us into a groove and we ended up pounding the ball really well.” - junior RB Chase Brown

Despite being the top seed, the Falcons wound up playing a road game at what was designed to be neutral site for the Coral Conference Championship against Seven Rivers Christian in Lecanto. The Warriors advanced as the No. 2 seed for a playoff rematch with SSES. The 2015 game had been a wild shootout with the Falcons prevailing. This time around, it wasn't nearly as dramatic. Saint Stephen's was in control on the way to a 40-20 victory. It was another showcase for Chase Brown, who rushed 17 times for 214 yards and four touchdowns. Fred Billy added 160 yards on the ground and a TD pass as the Falcons punched their ticket to the SSAC Championship Game for the second straight season.

"The idea that we're going to play for a state championship - it's hard to wrap our brains around. It's something we've thought about all year." Defensive Coordinator Chris Valcarcel

NOVEMBER 19, 2016 - SUNSHINE STATE ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP

Saint Stephen's Falcons vs. Vero Beach Saint Edward's Pirates

From the opening kickoff, it was clear that Saint Edward's was going to be a formidable foe. The Warriors advanced to the title game by upsetting top-seeded Windermere Prep in their half of the conference. And after a promising opening SSES drive that ended in a fumble at the Saint Edward's goal line, the Warriors took charge. Using a ball-control, clock-eating offense, Saint Edwards scored on two of its three first-half possessions to take a 14-0 lead into the half.

Following the break, the Falcons continued to struggle on the offensive side of the ball. The Warriors played more keep-away and looked poised to add to their lead as the fourth quarter opened with Saint Edward's lining up for a 40-yard field goal attempt. Then came what proved to be a turning point in the game . . .

Senior defensive back Letherio Jones, Jr. sprinted around the end and blocked the kick, which was recovered by Jett Gillum. Six plays later, Fred Billy scored on a 7-yard touchdown run. The point after failed, but the Falcons had life, now trailing just 14-6.

Forcing a three-and-out on the Pirates' next possession, SSES made a huge gamble pay off. On fourth-and-6 from his own 42-yard line, Billy threw a long pass to a double-teamed Vining, who came down with a 41-yard reception at the Saint Edward's 17-yard line.

Two plays later Billy scored his second touchdown, this one from three yards out. Demetrius Davis took a reverse handoff and tied the game 14-14 with a two-point conversion and 7:22 remaining in regulation.

With the Falcons fans in attendance up and cheering as they felt the momentum shift, SSES forced another three-and-out, with Jett Gillum defending a pass on third down. Following a punt, Saint Stephen's began a drive at its own 23. Eight running plays, including Fred Billy runs of 13 and 25 yards against a wilting Pirates' defense, led to Chase Brown's 6-yard touchdown with 2:25 left to play. After not scoring for the first 86 minutes, 32 seconds over a span of two games at Pennington Field, the Falcons tallied three touchdowns in a span of 6:02 of the fourth quarter to turn a 14-point deficit into a 21-14 victory and their historic first state championship.

"Not a lot of things were going right. We were turning the ball over, which we don't typically do. Fred took it on his shoulders which he has been doing for the past year and made sure we got it done. That's just a testament to him. He has been so driven in helping us be successful. That came out tonight." - Head Coach Tod Creneti on title game MVP Fred Billy, who rushed for 206 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.

Created by the Saint Stephen's Marketing/Communications Department

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Photos by David Glaser

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