On the day they were supposed to play Xaverian the second time, Iona Prep split its offense and defense. The Gaels spent last Saturday’s practice with the two groups going helmet to helmet, pads to pads, right to the cusp of a full-contact scrimmage.
Linebacker Kyle Bonci said his defense played for bragging rights. The offense didn’t exactly back down, either.
“It was fun. It kept our minds in it,” senior wide receiver Austin Jones said. “Our coaches did a great job of keeping us ready to play.”
Both Iona Prep and Stepinac have been forced to meet that same challenge. Neither has played in three weeks after the CHSFL moved to postpone the beginning of its playoffs twice in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Member schools on Long Island and Staten Island were devastated. A few still couldn’t practice last week because of power outages.
“You have to understand, obviously, with Staten Island and Long Island being hit much harder than here,” Stepinac coach Mike O’Donnell said. “And we still had people that didn’t have power up until this week. Some of our students were trying to do homework by candlelight.”
O’Donnell compared the situation to 9/11. His team’s 2001 game against Iona Prep was postponed a week, but the program dealt directly with the loss of coach Joe Riverso, who was killed in the attacks.
Even in the wake of that tragedy, the football season resumed after a week off. “That was different,” O’Donnell said. “This has been strange.”
The teams geared up to play last weekend before the games were postponed again. It left coaches scrambling to keep their players engaged. While Iona Prep decided to scrimmage, Stepinac condensed practices and increased competition by adding 20 junior varsity players after their season was canceled.
The second postponement left the Crusaders in a scheduling bind. They will play Sunday at St. Joe’s by-the-Sea on Staten Island and Thursday in the annual Turkey Bowl against White Plains. If Stepinac beats St. Joe’s, it will play St. Anthony’s or Monsignor Farrell on Tuesday, Nov. 27.
“It’s a big challenge,” senior running back Ryan Burnett said. “Everybody has to be mentally prepared and physically prepared. It’s going to be tough physically playing three games in a couple of days.”
The league asked Stepinac not to play White Plains, but the Crusaders refused. They hoped to play St. Joe’s before Sunday, but the CHSFL forbids teams from scheduling games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoon during SAT exams. (Exams were also postponed to this weekend by the storm.)
Surviving the layoff has been “all mental,” according to Bonci. His team harbors championship aspirations, but can’t meet them until it returns to the field for real.
“Practice is great and all, but we practice to play the games,” said Bonci, whose team hosts Xaverian Sunday. “We haven’t been able to do that yet.”
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CHSFL AAA quarterfinal
No. 2 Iona Prep (7-1) vs. No. 7 Xaverian (2-6)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Iona Prep
Key players: Iona Prep — Chris Cooper (5-11, 185), Sr., WR/CB; Mario Biaggi (6-0, 195), Sr., QB; Shaquille Townsend (5-9, 190), Sr., RB; O’Shea Morris (6-3, 260), Sr., OT; Kyle Bonci (6-1, 195), Sr., LB; Aaaqil Sheppard (6-2, 210), Sr., LB. Xaverian — Laray Smith (6-1, 190), Sr., RB; Zach Kearney (5-9, 185), Sr., QB/DB; Jonathan Badyna (6-3, 230), Sr., WR/LB; Peter Tuohy (6-0, 180), Sr., WR/LB; Christopher Jones (6-0, 245), Sr., OL/DL/P.
Outlook: On the heels of its only loss of the season, Iona started slowly the next week against a struggled Xaverian team. But by the time the dust had settled, the Gaels appeared to find their footing, routing the Clippers 41-10. The game marked a return from an ankle injury that cost him two games and has limited the effectiveness of both him and his team. The senior is one of the most coveted players in the state, receiving scholarship offers from the likes of Tennessee, Purdue and Syracuse, among others. He and the electric Kearney were expected to help Xaverian contend right alongside Iona. But the Gaels have been the superior team. They sounded defeated the Clippers behind Biaggi’s 183 yards passing and three touchdowns, including two to Cooper. There’s no reason to believe Iona can be stopped in the rematch.
Next up: The winner will play either No. 3 Chaminade or No. 6 Holy Cross next weekend in the semifinals at the higher seed.
CHSFL AAA quarterfinal
No. 4 St. Joe’s by-the-Sea (7-1) vs. No. 5 Stepinac (3-5)
When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Where: St. Joe’s by-the-Sea
Key players: St. Joe’s — Andrew Russo (5-7, 165), Jr., RB; Ryan Minlionica (5-8, 175), Jr., QB; Nicholas King (6-1, 220), Sr., RB/LB/K; Joseph Barretta (5-7, 170), Sr., DB; Brandan Spears (6-2, 230), Sr., DL. Stepinac — Dan Hoffer (6-2, 205), Sr., QB; Dan Pomposello (6-4, 305), Sr., OT; Ryan Burnett (5-6, 185), Sr., RB; Tom Dediviani (5-9, 190), Sr., LB; Brian Harris (6-0, 230), Jr., OL/DT; Damarcus Miller (6-1, 170), So., WR/LB; Sterling Lovelock (6-0, 215), Sr., DL.
Outlook: These teams engaged in a classic on Oct. 13 that was both the only loss for St. Joe’s and the best win of the season for Stepinac. The Crusaders led 14-0 before falling into a tie, but they needed a field goal by Michael Pizzuti with two seconds remaining to win. The rematch should be the most competitive quarterfinal in the CHSFL’s AAA division. The teams’ styles couldn’t be more different. Stepinac relies on a balanced spread offense and a defense based primarily on speed. St. Joe’s runs a double-wing offense with a limited but effective playbook that produced three touchdowns or more in its other seven games. The team is physical and plodding; it has attempted just 22 passes all season, rarely punts and routinely kicks onsides on kickoffs. When Stepinac overcame all that, it began its best stretch of the season. The Crusaders, now winners of two of three, will continue their effort to save an otherwise disappointing season.
Next up: The winner will play either No. 1 St. Anthony’s or No. 8 Monsignor Farrell in the semifinals at the higher seed. (If Stepinac wins, the game will be played on Tuesday, Nov. 27 to accommodate the Crusaders’ Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving.)