Make no mistake about it, Mike Anusky is not one to champion moral victories.
At the end of the day, a loss is still a loss.
That said, a growing silver lining is slowly patching a tattered Archbishop Ryan High School football program.
And it has been pretty tattered. The Raiders have not won a Catholic League game since 2007. Their next league contest could end as their 19th loss in a row. From 2008 through ’10, Ryan posted an overall record of 3-29, including a winless season in 2008.
Luckily for the Raiders, feeling the weight of such a punishing streak of futility has one upside: The only way to go is up.
Little by little, Ryan is starting to pick up the pieces, and Anusky — a senior quarterback in his second full season as the primary signal-caller — is a major reason why. In the season opener, the Raiders lost a 24-21 nail-biter to Cardinal O’Hara, a team that shut them out the year before. But Anusky and company then reeled off three straight wins for the first time since 1998.
Though they have recently stumbled to three straight losses — including last Friday’s 28-26 defeat by league rival Roman Catholic at Northeast High School — progress is being made over on Academy Road. Roman, one of the city’s top teams, whipped Ryan last season, 36-0, and a similar thumping had been widely predicted this time around.
But a funny thing happened: Not only did the feisty Raiders (3-4 overall, 0-2 Catholic League) show up, but they gave the Cahillites one heck of a scare. First, senior receiver and defensive back Mike Palmer returned the opening kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown. After sophomore Mark Ostaszewski recovered a fumble, Anusky finished a four-play drive with a 37-yard touchdown run to give the Raiders a 14-0 lead after one quarter.
“We wanted to come out and jump on them,” said the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Anusky. “That’s a great team, and we knew if we let them get ahead then they’d probably run all over us. The kickoff gave us a ton of momentum, and our defense made stops and forced a turnover. All of a sudden we were up by two scores, but it was still early. I think that’s why this one hurts so bad, because we did put ourselves in a position to win that game.”
Roman (5-2 overall, 2-1 league) chipped away, cutting the deficit to 20-14 at halftime. Paced by senior running back Marcus Kelly’s (22 carries, 188 yards) two third-quarter touchdown scampers and junior Michael Keir’s 208 yards passing and two touchdowns, the Cahillites built an 8-point fourth-quarter lead. After a pair of interceptions tossed by Anusky (255 total yards, two touchdowns), Roman seemed ready to step on Ryan’s throat.
However, after a gritty goal-line stand that kept the Cahillites from scoring, Anusky hit a streaking Palmer (four catches, 190 yards) over the middle of the field for a thrilling 95-yard touchdown with 1:41 remaining. But a low snap on the conversion try forced Anusky to rush his throw, and the subsequent incompletion meant the Raiders were headed for league loss No. 18 in a row.
“At this point of the season, it’s really hard to take a moral victory,” a visibly dejected Anusky said after the game. “At the same time, I think our goal has been to make a statement each week, that we aren’t the old Ryan anymore. I think we did that.”
While seniors like Anusky and Palmer may not be around to complete the Ryan revival, they’ve done plenty to help point the program in that direction. After Anusky’s failed two-point try, a palpable wave of disappointment washed over the Raiders. The reaction was a bit of a surprise; unlike past Ryan teams, this one expects to win.
“I’m hurt too, but I couldn’t have asked for you to play harder than you did,” third-year Ryan coach Frank McArdle told his team after the game. “You played your guts out. I know you’re getting tired of the same old speech, but this game tonight showed that we’re back. We played as hard as we could and let the chips fall where they may. I’m real proud of this group.”
Things won’t get easier any time soon. If the Raiders don’t want to see their league losing streak reach 20 games, they’ll have to knock off La Salle and Father Judge, two of the city’s most talented teams.
“Last year, teams like O’Hara and Roman crushed us,” Anusky said. “We had no confidence, and I think we almost expected to lose. It hurts to lose to them the way we have this year, but now the confidence we have is carrying us forward.
“We put in so much hard work over the offseason,” he continued. “We were tired from fighting Roman all game tonight, but we still had enough left in us to get a 95-yard touchdown at the end. We want to win, and I think we will.”
Even if Anusky is gone before the Raiders end their streak, he has worked hard to mentor a young team that will be battle-tested in 2012 and beyond. After slogging up a muddy hill of losses over the past few seasons, Ryan can finally envision victories that await at the top of their climb.
“Everybody’s committed now,” Anusky said. “I love the seniors of the past couple of years, but because we lost so many games, it didn’t seem like they were always committed out there. We have a lot of underclassmen on this team, and it’s my job and the rest of the seniors’ jobs to lead these guys and put in the effort to show them how to play football the right way. By doing so, we can show them how to compete in these big games, and hopefully they’ll be ready to keep turning this thing around down the line.” ••
Reporter Ed Morrone can be reached at Edward.firstname.lastname@example.org