It’s a happy ‘new football season’ for Royal Oak Shrine

Cardinal Mooney quarterback Marco Taranta looks for room to run against Royal Oak Shrine. The Cardinals fumbled away early scoring opportunities, while Shrine featured dual threats, quarterback Conor Benson and halfback Charles Niehaus, for a 27-13 victory. (Photo by Maria Bazo, Cardinal Mooney yearbook staff)

Knights begin league play with a 27-13 win over Marine City Cardinal Mooney

MARINE CITY – It’s a happy new football season for Royal Oak Shrine.

“We’re 1-0,” Shrine coach Oscar Olejniczak announced to his squad in the joyous aftermath  of a 27-13 victory last Saturday afternoon against Marine City Cardinal Mooney.

“Today was our first league game. Those were three non-league games before, so we’re done with that,” he said. And good riddance, too. The games were lopsided losses.

“This is first time we’ve played with our original line since the first scrimmage because of injuries,” Olejniczak explained. “We still have a lineman playing with a bad right knee, and a lineman who just came off surgery two weeks ago. We had four guys who did not practice all week. I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”

Across the gridiron, Cardinal Mooney had experienced the exact opposite, a 3-0 start, whipping a pair of non-league opponents and, a week earlier, Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, 43-8, in a league opener.

The setting at East China Stadium, the Cardinals’ home field in nearby St. Clair, was “Pure Michigan” with brilliant sunshine, a mild breeze, peaceful, tranquil.

When the Cardinals offense threatened in the early minutes of the first quarter to reach within seven yards of the end zone, Shrine’s Andrew Bala pounced on quarterback Marco Taranta’s fumble, halting Cardinal Mooney’s chance at drawing first blood.

One could sense an uneasiness in the home crowd’s mood when, five minutes later, another opportunity went by the wayside when running back Nathan Super had the ball stripped from his grasp after a 30-yard run to Shrine’s 12-yard line.

While the Cardinals’ offense sputtered, the defense remained solid, frustrating the Knights to yield the ball on four punts.

The turning point of the game occurred on Cardinal Mooney’s next possession. Energized by a 15-yard face mask penalty against Shrine and an 18-yard ramble by wide receiver Ryan Trombley, the Cardinals faced a fourth-and-9 on Shrine’s 39-yard line.

After two incomplete passes, Taranta connected with Brian Everhart for what appeared to be barely enough yardage to keep the drive going. Officials deliberated for a couple of minutes, placing the ball inches short of a first down.

The Knights responded immediately to their good fortune. Quarterback Conor Benson slipped through the left side of the line and raced 69 yards for a touchdown. Three minutes later, halfback Charles Niehaus circled left for 10 yards and another Shrine touchdown and a 13-0 halftime lead..

“(Fumbling) the ball twice going in (for a touchdown), you can’t do that against a decent team,” Cardinal Mooney coach Joe Quesnelle said. “I told the players before the game that Shrine’s a good football team. We haven’t done it all year. We have one fumble all season. Today we had four. I don’t know if  they got too excited about a big game, but it was disappointing. We’ll be back.”

Mooney finally made it over the goal line putting together an 11-play, 66-yard drive in the third quarter, capped by Everhart’s 3-yard plunge (and Michael Ricard’s extra point), to make it 13-7.

Benson and Niehaus took over Shrine’s offense in a rousing fourth quarter. Benson crashed 8 yards through the middle to restore a 20-7 lead.

Mooney junior Trent Rice kept the Cardinals’ hopes alive by returning the ensuing kickoff 77 yards to shave Shrine’s advantage to 20-13.

In the Knights’ victory-clinching rally, Niehaus ran for 30 yards and Benson, 25, the last 13 after shaking off tacklers.

“What an athlete,” Olejniczak said about Benson. “What a person that you would go to every game because he’s a tiger. Never gives up, so strong physically and mentally.

“My captains – Niehaus, Aaron Smith, Marty Hannon, Benson – they just fought today.”

Olejniczak continued: “When we get a lead and we have our offensive line, Niehaus is our true workhorse. I can give him the ball 30 times mixed in with Conor throwing the ball and making the right reads and checks at the line.”

Benson ran 13 times for 174 yards, and Niehaus carried 21 times for 130 yards.

For Mooney, Taranta completed 10 passes in 22 attempts for 96 yards. Super gained 39 yards on five carries. Junior Brendan Haisenleder, who came into the game with 11 TDs to his credit, was limited to 32 yards on 12 carries.

Shrine and Clarkston Everest top the CHSL Intersectional Division 2 standings with 1-0 records. Cardinal Mooney is 1-1. Allen Park Cabrini and Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes are 0-1. University Liggett is 0-2.

Defending league champ Everest is scheduled to host Mooney Oct. 1 and travel to Shrine Oct. 15.

Sideline chatter

Shrine has only 18 players on its roster. Olejniczak, who said he was hired four years ago to build up the school’s CYO program, said, “We got a 7th and  8th grade team that’s undefeated. There are 25 kids on the team. We have amazing coaches who are dedicated. We have 70 kids in our program right now.”

Three years ago, Cardinal Mooney had 15 players on its football roster. Now it has 31. Quesnelle said, “We tell younger players, the 9th and 10th graders, that they are as important as the veteran players.”  Eight freshmen are on this year’s squad.

Way back in 1992, Mooney beat Shrine 14-13. The schools have played 16 more times since, and Shrine has won them all: in 1994-95-96; 2000-01; 2003; 2007-08-09-10; and 2016-17-18-19-20 and 21.  Quesnelle was an assistant coach at Shrine from 2009 to 2017, so he’s had a hand in at least four of those games against Mooney.

Of the 18 football teams in the CHSL, only two teams remain undefeated: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 4-0 and Warren DeLaSalle 3-0. They collide at 7 p.m. Friday at St. Mary’s.

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected]