By popular request, here’s more on my visits to Iona Prep and Stepinac. Also, for our small-school readers, I’m headed to Hackley today, and will hit Dobbs Ferry, Irvington and Ardsley if time permits.
IONA PREP (click here for video)
The headline for Iona Prep this year is simple: Vic Quirolo has added a new offensive coordinator, and the Gaels have transition their vaunted spread offense to the Pistol.
Quirolo, as you probably know, called the offense last season after previous offensive coordinator D.J. Williams went home to work and coach in South Carolina. Williams had been integral in the Gaels’ recent successes, including their 2008 CHSFL AAA championship, which was the first in program history. His offenses were high-powered and produced some of the best skill players in the area has seen in the last decade.
When Williams left, Quirolo was forced to focus on offense. Was it detrimental? It’s impossible to say, but Iona no doubt fell short of its lofty preseason expectations last year. The team was loaded, but it suffered a pair of somewhat surprising losses to eventual champ Chaminade, including an embarrassing defeat at home in the CHSFL semifinals.
This offseason, Quirolo heard about Adam Pummill, a 29-year old from Kansas City who had already coached all over the world and was in search for a job. Pummill consulted at Rye for a short time, and Quirolo brought him aboard to coach and call the offense. He has transformed the Gaels into a team with multiple sets that will primarily run the Pistol.
I talked to Pummill Tuesday. He played football and baseball at Missouri St., but is a family friend of longtime NFL offensive coordinator Al Saunders. That relationship helped him break into coaching, and he has already coached as an assistant at the University of Tennessee and as the head coach of the Carlstad Crusaders, a pro team in Sweden. Pummill met a girl, got married and moved to Manhattan; he runs his own business, which has allowed him to continue to coach football.
You could see the difference Pummill’s addition has made for Iona, most notably Quirolo. During a team session Tuesday, the head coach circled the field, coaching both offense and defense.
“It’s been great,” Quirolo said.
Quirolo has also been invigorated by a new challenge. Iona returns just five starters: defensive ends Michael Sullivan and Eric DeSalvo; safety Riley Aviles; outside linebacker Alex Raimondi; and Xavier Tyler, who will actually shift from defensive line to center. The offensive line probably needs the most work. All five starters are gone from last year.
There is also an ongoing position battle at the team’s most prestigious position: Quarterback. Senior Nick Kryza and much-hyped junior Robert Madison are in competition for the job, and bring different strengths. Kryza is a polished passer and Madison is a gifted athlete. But Kryza can run and Madison can throw, giving Iona plenty to consider. Madison has been ballyhooed since his freshman year, but Kryza’s going to play some. In fact, both are talented and they could split time.
Quirolo is typically understated about individual players, but he heaped praise on junior tight end/linebacker Qaadir Sheppard, the younger brother of last year’s star outside linebacker Aaaqil Sheppard. The younger Sheppard transferred from Mount after his freshman year, which, per league rules, relegated him to the JV. (Quirolo said he definitely would’ve played varsity.) He’s already about 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and will start at tight end. In fact, part of the impetus behind shifting to the Pistol was adding a tight end position for Sheppard; the spread didn’t include a tight end. Quirolo said that’s Sheppard’s best position, and called him the program’s next big Division I college prospect.
The competition is heavy at other positions. Senior running back Nick D’Angelo has been pushed by some underclassmen. Raimondi will probably play some receiver on offense, and Sullivan and DeSalvo might have to play some snaps on offensive line.
Iona will certainly be smaller up front this season, particularly without O’Shane Morris (Elon) and Billy Bishop (Penn for track). But Quirolo and his players told me the competition has created a different atmosphere around the team. With the pressure that it is their year, the Gaels have been able to relax so far.
STEPINAC (click here for video)
To watch the players buzz across the field and to hear Mike O’Donnell discuss them afterward, it’s clear speed could be Stepinac’s strongest attribute. It’s not that the Crusaders ever lack it, but their skill positions seem to be stocked with fast players. Just consider that quarterback Brandon Coleman and running back Malcolm Major (pictured right) have both been clocked at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.
O’Donnell, now in his 26th year, said this might be the fastest team he’s ever coached.
“We’re definitely a speed-based team. There’s no doubt about that,” O’Donnell said. “Having said that, we’re probably going to run the ball more than we throw it.”
Like Iona, Stepinac will attempt to utilize its speed by shifting to plenty of the Pistol, an offense that prevents the defense from overloading one side or the other as successfully as it can against a spread. Coleman will be integral to that as he takes over for Dan Hoffer, who now plays at Maine. He’s lacks Hoffer’s size and booming arm, but he is accurate and can score on any touch because of that breakaway speed.
Although Coleman didn’t play down the stretch last season, Stepinac had several underclassmen who did. Major, a CHSAA sprint champion, earned snaps in the slot, but he’s added muscle and is expected to serve as the team’s every-down back. Fellow juniors Demarcus Miller and Gavin Heslop should play both ways after starting on defense as sophomores. Miller, a wide receiver and outside linebacker/safety, and Heslop, a versatile offensive player and defensive back, are probably the team’s top college prospects. They attended camp at Rutgers together this summer.
Stepinac spent Tuesday’s practice working on increasing its tempo, running about 80 offensive plays in 24 minutes. It may need the faster pace because the offensive line lacks the size of its predecessors. It does, however, return two, two-way anchors in seniors Brian Harris and Michael Carlucci, who will probably be the only two starting linemen to start on defense, too.
In addition to the linemen, Miller and Heslop, the defense also returns two of its top players from a year ago in safety Narendra Itwaru and linebacker Albert Mehaj. Talented senior Osaze Perry-Porter, who played tight end last year once Marist-bound senior Tarik Stovall broke his leg, will play defensive end across from Harris.
Stepinac has a handful of other positions solidified. Junior wide receiver Giancarlo Furio, a 6-foot-1 receiver, could be one of Coleman’s top options. Seniors Timmy Hill and Joe Somereve, a 300-pounder, are expected to start on the offensive line. Junior Chris Jordan, at 270 pounds, is slated to start at nose guard.
In the backfield, sophomore Daniel Negron and junior Brian Malone should see time at fullback when the offense uses one.
O’Donnell is also determined to put more of an emphasis on special teams, which cost the team two wins last season. It’s another key piece for a program trying to establish itself as a consistent contender in the CHSFL’s top division.
“We’re trying to get to that point where we’re at the top of the league every year,” O’Donnell said. “We see in the league here many times that a team gets to the AAA playoffs and goes to the championship finals and then doesn’t get there again and is kind of forgotten. We want to start getting to the point where we’re at least in the semifinals or being thought of up at the top of the AAA every year. That’s what we’re trying to do with the tempo and everything else we’re doing and we feel pretty good about it.”