To begin the week, the Iona Prep coaching staff forced the players to watch the worst film they produced all year, focusing on what went wrong in the fourth quarter of the Gaels’ 34-31 loss to Chaminade on Sept. 22.
It is the lone blemish in their season and a result of failures on defense and special teams. They allowed Chaminade to rally from a two-touchdown deficit, including a 12-point hole in the fourth quarter.
Rather than focusing on specifics, Iona Prep has distilled the mistakes that led to the loss in one word: “Toughness.” The team decided that was what it lacked more than any “X” or “O.”
“We’ve basically been doing over the film and seeing what went wrong,” senior running back Shaquille Townsend said. “I kind of felt like last game, we didn’t bring our toughest game. Chaminade is a really tough team.”
The Long Island school, which enters Saturday’s 1 p.m. CHSFL AAA semifinal at 8-1 (just like Iona Prep), fields an 81-man roster that stands up in both numbers and size to league power St. Anthony’s, the top seed, which most likely will await in the championship game at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 2.
In the first meeting, the Gaels used their superior speed to jump ahead 14-0 in the first half, but they struggled on kickoffs, allowing one for a touchdown to Chaminade’s Robert Speranza Jr. Iona Prep was hampered in the second half by injuries on defense that Chaminade exploited with its size and depth.
“They wore us down,” senior Chris Cooper said.
The Gaels worked this week on a new defensive scheme and said they are at full health. Defensive back Michael Barbuto and linebacker Michael Florio were among the key players who missed time in the first meeting.
“We look at it as a second chance to get back in stride,” said Cooper, a two-way starter at wide receiver and cornerback who caught four touchdown passes in last weekend’s CHSFL quarterfinal win against Xaverian. “Even though we lost to them, our coach told us we lacked toughness toward the end of the game. Mentally, this week has been about toughness.”
That approach and the memory of that stinging loss should allow Iona Prep to bring a different mentality to the rematch. Last time, the Gaels played a week after beating three-time defending league champ St. Anthony’s. Now, they know their path to the program’s first title since 2008 must go through Chaminade, too.
“After that St. Anthony’s win, we didn’t get complacent, but we felt accomplished and we didn’t have a good week of practice,” Townsend said. “But we’ve definitely learned from our mistakes.”
CHSFL AAA semifinal
No. 2 Iona Prep (8-1) vs. No. 3 Chaminade (8-1)
When: Saturday, 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. Chaminade — Sean Cerrone (5-11, 180), Jr., QB; Thomas Zenker (6-4, 220), Sr., WR; Robert Speranza Jr. (5-11, 210), Jr., RB; Dan Fowler (5-11, 210), Sr., RB; Brendan O’Callaghan (6-2, 240), Sr., OL/DL.
Outlook: Suffice it to say, Iona Prep will not lack for motivation. The Gaels squandered a 12-point fourth quarter lead and lost 34-31 to Chaminade at home in Week 3. It was their only loss of the season and came just a week after their best win, a victory over three-time defending champ St. Anthony’s. Defensive injuries and poor special teams’ play conspired in the collapse, but the Iona Prep coaching staff also believes its team was defeated at the point of attack in the fourth quarter. Their message to the team all week has been “toughness.”
Iona’s offense has continued to expand in the weeks since the loss. Biaggi, who was once a run-first quarterback, has developed into more of a downfield threat with Cooper and senior Austin Jones as his top weapons. He and Townsend are still threats to run, but Iona’s greatest advantage against Chaminade is its speed. The Gaels also have a strong offensive line that should be fresh late in the fourth quarter. The only lineman who plays both ways is senior Malik Joseph. He anchors a small but quick defensive front along with Michael Sullivan. The speed of the defensive backfield is another strength. Cooper and senior Michael Barbuto are two of the county’s fastest players. Bonci and Michael Florio provide even more speed at linebacker.
They’ll need it against a bigger, deeper team with an 81-man roster that challenges St. Anthony’s in both size and sheer numbers. Late in their regular season meeting, Chaminade’s line play allowed Cerrone ample time to work the ball to the rangy Zenker, his leading receiver, who had a 100-yard day. Cerrone also had success on the ground, as did Speranza Jr., whose biggest contribution came on kickoff returns. That was where Chaminade hurt Iona the most, exploiting the Gaels’ kicking game and jumpstarting the offense after Iona ran out to a 14-0 lead. The defense will certainly have to play better. It surrendered 430 yards to the Gaels, including 174 on the ground to Townsend.
Next up: The winner will play either No. 1 St. Anthony’s or No. 4 St. Joseph by-the-Sea on Sunday, Dec. 2 in the league championship game at Yankee Stadium.