UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- In football, the importance of the number 11 is obvious. Exactly 11 players are on the field from each team at all times.
For Manhattan’s Xavier High School, that number has taken on a new significance in the days and weeks since the displacement and devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Of the Knights’ 43 varsity players, 11 had to vacate their Queens homes because of the storm.
The night Sandy struck Belle Harbor, senior Ryan McDade, 17, was at home with his family.
“I was really scared,” McDade said Saturday. “Once I saw that fire, I knew we shouldn’t panic, we just needed to get everybody out of the house, so I got the surfboards out of the garage, I got the kayak, I put my grandma in the kayak, threw my (two younger) sisters on the surfboard and just got out of there -- five feet of freezing cold water, it was just a bad night.”
McDade, who plays primarily on special teams, has worn uniform No. 2 since the storm, although he’s listed on the roster as No. 22. The uniform he used to wear was destroyed with the rest of his family’s possessions when Sandy struck.
McDade’s father, Steve, a retired firefighter, said their evacuation lasted about 20 minutes and that 20 minutes later, fire had wiped out their home. “We had to bail, we lost everything. But we still have this [football], we have our neighborhood, our community, it’s all good.”
Holding back tears in describing the fears of that night and the heroic efforts of his son, Steve McDade said, “Ryan grew up fast.”
Despite the post-Sandy upheaval for one-quarter of the team, Xavier didn’t just continue to play, it embarked on an improbable postseason run. The Knights won two playoff games to reach Saturday night’s metropolitan area Catholic High School Football League AA championship in Uniondale against St. John the Baptist, whose coach, Keith Schweers, said six Cougars were also displaced by Sandy.
The two teams met during the regular season, with St. John the Baptist winning 14-0. The Cougars again scored 14 points in the championship game, but this time the Knights dominated behind three rushing touchdowns from senior Ryan Kilgallen and two from junior Trey Solomon. Kilgallen, like McDade, is the son of a retired firefighter and one of the 11 Xavier players who were displaced by the storm.
After the 35-14 title game triumph, Xavier coach Chris Stevens told his team, “Hey boys, you did it, you’re New York’s team, the feel-good story of Sandy.”
ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap and Tory Zawacki contributed to this story.