When you preview the CHSFL AAA championship, there’s little question what needs to change if Stepinac hopes to win. Yes, the Crusaders need to avoid the turnovers that plagued them, both against St. Anthony’s the first time around and during their first two playoff games.
But the crux of any turnaround would focus on improving the defense, which was torched in a 55-29 loss to the Friars last month.
“Defensively, we definitely played bad,” coordinator Jon DeMarco told me before practice Tuesday. “We know that.”
So does St. Anthony’s, although the Friars aren’t exactly the same team, as you can read in my scouting report. They have since benched the QB who was nearly perfect in these teams’ first meeting, but much of that success came in throwing to receiver Jack Poetzsch. He caught seven balls for 102 yards against Stepinac before suffering a season-ending leg injury in the second half.
If you take a second to look at St. Anthony’s stats since then, you can see the passing game hasn’t been nearly that potent since. The Friars are expected to start sophomore quarterback Greg Galligan on Friday and — if recent games are any indication — will rely almost exclusively on their ground game.
As you can read in today’s story, Stepinac hopes it is better prepared this time thanks to personnel changes. Senior Garfield Heslop (pictured upper left with assistant coach Steve Moroney) moved from OLB to defensive end. Senior Nick Shaw moved up from safety to OLB, the position he started at last season. It allows Shaw to contain the perimeter, which has been his strength. Coach Mike O’Donnell said Heslop would be caught inside; now, he is there to make plays when backs are redirected toward he and Austin Taps.
The Crusaders filled their safety position with sophomore Narendra Itwaru, who is a good story on his own. O’Donnell said the coaches watched the JV play St. Anthony’s that same weekend. Because Stepinac’s home field was not complete at the time, the varsity and JV had spent little time (if any) on the same field, so the game was their first opportunity to watch Itwaru live. He impressed, and they quickly promoted him to the varsity. Since? Itwaru has 40 tackles (25 solo, 15 assists) in just five games.
Heslop has been improved as well. He has seven of his sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the last five weeks. He also had 13 solo tackles against Xaverian, knifing into the backfield to chase stalled ball carriers.
“Some simple moves like that — getting kids into positions they need to be in — make you better,” DeMarco said.
Friday will be the ultimate test. Here’s a look at the particulars…
Scouting report —
CHSFL AAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
No. 1 St. Anthony’s (9-0) vs. No. 2 Stepinac (8-2)
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Mitchel Athletic Complex, Uniondale
Key players: St. Anthony’s — Anthony Anderson (5-11, 210), Jr., RB; Maston Ellerbe (5-8, 170), Sr., RB; Tim Stackpole (5-10, 165), Sr., DB. Stepinac — Austin Taps (6-5, 235), Sr., TE/DE; Caleb Gilligan-Evans (6-1, 250), Sr., RB/DT; Vincent Narog (6-1, 185), Sr., WR/OLB.
Key matchup: Stepinac defensive front vs. St. Anthony’s offensive line.
Outlook: The teams were undefeated when they met in Week 5 and St. Anthony’s rolled to a 55-29 victory. The Friars pushed around the Stepinac defense, not punting until the final minute. The Crusaders have since rotated players to different positions and they believe the changes have helped their defense. The unit played well in a 27-21 semifinal victory over Xaverian that lifted Stepinac into its first AAA championship game in program history. St. Anthony’s will appear in its 13th straight final and has won nine of the last 10. (Stepinac has not won an overall CHSFL title since 1955.) The Friars will play without top receiver Jack Poetzsch, who burned the Crusaders last time for seven catches, 102 yards and a score before suffering an injury in the second half that knocked him out for the remainder of the season. They have also since replaced Pete Carew at quarterback with sophomore Greg Galligan. Carew, a senior, went 10 for 11 for 146 yards in the teams’ previous meeting. St. Anthony’s could be a different this time around.
(Pictured right: Stepinac’s Mark White)
Stepinac coach Mike O’Donnell on St. Anthony’s: “I think we’ve made some changes since then, which is the most important thing. We may’ve had some people playing out of place early in the year. It seems the changes have helped out our defense a lot.”
St. Anthony’s piled up 448 yards on 63 plays in a 55-29 win at White Plains High School last month. Both teams entered the game unbeaten, but Stepinac’s defense failed to hold the Friars’ first-team offense to anything less than a touchdown all game.
“We had them third-and-long probably about eight or nine times but they got it every single time,” O’Donnell said. “If we could ever find a way to stop those plays because we played OK defense at times during the game. They are just backbreakers when you give up those big plays.”
St. Anthony’s has made 13 straight AAA championship games and won nine of the last 10. Stepinac has never even appeared in a AAA final, and has not won the league’s top prize since 1955, when there were no championship bowls.
“Who knows when we’re going to be in the AAA championship again, so we have to take our shot and see what happens,” O’Donnell said.