Here’s my story (plus scouting report) on Sunday’s CHSFL quarterfinal between Stepinac and Iona Prep — the first playoff game between the schools in 20 years:
After overcoming an 0-3 start to the season and the uncertainty of an ever-changing lineup, Iona Prep finally discovered its identity three weeks ago on Stepinac’s home field. The Gaels delivered a thorough performance, humbling the Crusaders 40-14.
For anyone expecting to see more of the same in Sunday’s playoff rematch, Iona Prep has a handful of reasons to reconsider. The Gaels return for their CHSFL AAA quarterfinal facing the same question that once threatened their season and has done so again: What to do about all these injuries?
“It doesn’t help us,” said Iona Prep coach Vic Quirolo, whose is unsure who will be in uniform when his fifth-seeded Gaels visit No. 4 Stepinac at 1 Sunday afternoon. “We just have to play through it as best we can.”
Iona Prep (4-5) learned just how crippling those key injuries can be again last week, losing 10-7 in overtime to Monsignor Farrell, a team Stepinac beat 28-7 earlier last month.
Junior Stephon Smith, who sliced through the Crusaders for 159 yards and three scores, was hobbled after hyperextending his knee. He didn’t start against Monsignor Farrell and was ineffective after coming in for injured senior Nick D’Angelo.
Iona Prep’s insurance for Smith and D’Angelo, junior Taj Marable, a starter on defense, suffered a dislocated shoulder two weeks ago and, like Smith, is questionable for Sunday’s game.
Although Stepinac (6-3) knows the Gaels aren’t playing possum, coach Mike O’Donnell expects to see their best.
“I have heard rumors about injuries, but I expect everyone who is able to be suited up and ready to go,” O’Donnell said. “In games like this, it always seems like kids heal faster.”
Both teams know how rare this opportunity is. Iona Prep and Stepinac have not matched up in the playoffs since the 1993 CHSFL A Division final, a game won 13-0 by the Gaels.
O’Donnell said this year’s rematch was “special” because it is a playoff game at the league’s highest level. It will also afford his Crusaders a chance to make amends.
“This is a big game and we welcome the chance to play better,” O’Donnell said. “We were embarrassed at home by the way we played the last game. Our kids get a chance to show up and play again.”
The Gaels understand the 40-14 score could be considered misleading. Forget about the potential impact of their key injuries; they were actually outgained 398-395 and their defense had to stuff Stepinac twice inside the 2.
“There were a couple of plays in that game that, if you turn them around, you turn that game around,” Quirolo said. “The score didn’t really reflect what happened on the field.”
CHSFL AAA quarterfinal
No. 4 Stepinac (6-3) vs. No. 5 Iona Prep (4-5)
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Archbishop Stepinac
2013 meetings: Iona Prep won 40-14 on Oct. 19 at Stepinac
Key players: Stepinac — Damarcus Miller (6-1, 170), Jr., WR/LB/DB; Gavin Heslop (6-1, 180), Jr., HB/CB; Brandon Coleman (5-10, 160), Jr., QB. Iona Prep — Nick Kryza (6-4, 170), Sr., QB; Stephon Smith (5-9, 170), Jr., RB/DB; Michael Sullivan (6-1, 230), Sr., OL/DL.
Outlook: Iona Prep has won eight of the last nine against Stepinac, all of them by two touchdowns or more. The Gaels appeared vulnerable after starting the season 0-3, but they peaked against Stepinac. Smith rolled up 159 yards rushing and three touchdowns and the defense shut out the Crusaders in the second half. Despite an overpowering performance last time, Iona Prep enters the rematch hobbled. The team’s top three running backs — Smith (knee), junior Taj Marable and senior Nick D’Angelo — are all hobbled, which might thrust Bobby Lewis into the starting lineup. Stepinac has remained mostly intact and won its last two games by a combined score of 64-14. The Crusaders will need to capitalize better on opportunities this time, as well as have more success at the line of scrimmage. This is the first playoff meeting between the rivals since the 1993 A Division championship, a game won 13-0 by Iona Prep.
Up next: The winner will play the winner of the quarterfinal between No. 1 St. Anthony’s and No. 8 Monsignor Farrell at the higher seed in next week’s semifinals.