This is the third and final installment of my preview on Saturday’s CHSFL AAA championship game between Iona Prep and Stepinac. After this, it’s time to play football.
We’re about 24 hours away from game time and the schools have already sold over 2,400 tickets, according to Stepinac’s Office of Advancement. Stepinac has sold more than 1,400 advance tickets and Iona Prep is at about 1,000. Tickets will also be available at the gate for $10. (Parking is also $10.) Fordham’s Jack Coffey Field holds 7,000 fans, and that capacity may be tested.
Now, if you missed it earlier, the preview of Saturday’s game started with a look at the history of the Iona-Stepinac rivalry, including the final scores from all 66 meetings and information on some of the series’ highlights. Then, I posted my story from this morning’s Journal News about how the programs grew into title contenders.
Now, let’s get to the game at hand. Below is my look, position by position, at the strengths and weaknesses (if you can call them that) of each team. Included are the starters at each position, as well as subs who will likely play key roles. I included all relevant stats to give you an idea of just how productive these players have been.
At the end, you can see who I like to win. Let’s get to it.
Stepinac: Brandon Coleman, Sr., 78/117, 66.7%, 992 yards, 11 TD, 2 INT; 79 carries, 565 yards, 7 TD
(Tyquell Fields, Jr., 34/65, 52.3%, 588 yards, 10 TD, 0 INT; 52 carries, 365 yards, 3 TD)
Iona Prep: Robert Madison, Sr., 159/270 (58.9%), 2,118 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT; 36 carries, -28 yards, 1 TD
Advantage… Stepinac. Coleman (pictured above) alone is plenty for Iona Prep to contend with, but the presence of Fields (and especially both QBs in the backfield together) can prove terrifying.
RUNNING BACK —
Stepinac: Daniel Negron, Jr., FB, 6 carries, 6 yards, 4 TD; 2 receptions, 22 yards, 1 TD; Malcolm Major, Sr., TB, 88 carries, 644 yards, 6 TD; 23 receptions, 313 yards, 1 TD
(Tyquan Ennis, Sr., 52 carries, 625 yards, 10 TD; Gavin Heslop, Sr., 17 carries, 403 yards, 6 TD; Kobe Miranda, Jr., 36 carries, 337 yards, 3 TD; 4 receptions, 57 yards, 1 TD)
Iona Prep: Stephon Smith (pictured above), Sr., 132 carries, 655 yards, 3 TD; 21 receptions, 222 yards, 1 TD
(Taj Marable, Sr., 47 carries, 186 yards, 5 TD; Shane Martin, Jr., 90 carries, 502 yards, 6 TD)
Advantage… Stepinac. Major might be the fastest player on the field and is a superb receiver. He also has plenty of talent behind him. Heslop (23.7 ypc) and Ennis (12.0 ypc) are change-of-pace backs who can take just about any carry to the house.
WIDE RECEIVER —
Stepinac: Giancarlo Furio (pictured above), Sr., 28 receptions, 401 yards, 7 TD; Andrew Geni, Sr., 20 receptions, 259 yards, 3 TD; Damarcus Miller, Sr., 3 receptions, 48 yards
(Jesse Brown, Jr., 14 receptions, 249 yards, 3 TD; T.J. Morrison, Jr., 11 receptions, 195 yards, 4 TD)
Iona Prep: Dylan Mucci, Sr., 48 receptions, 688 yards, 7 TD; Rodney Samson Jr., So., 16 receptions, 185 yards; Qaadir Sheppard, Sr., 55 receptions, 834 yards, 13 TD; Brian Thompson, Sr., 33 receptions, 406 yards, 2 TD
(Christian Nigro, Jr., 8 receptions, 140 yards, 1 TD)
Advantage… Iona Prep. Starting with Sheppard, who is arguably the area’s top player, the Gaels have a versatile receiving corps, one that can stretch the field, make tough catches and pose a threat at the goal line.
OFFENSIVE LINE —
Stepinac: David Harris, Jr., LT; Dwayne Scott, Sr., LG; Khaleb Celaj, Jr., C; Dante Ezkiel-Francis, Sr., RG; Kyle Gwin, Sr., RT. 4,795 yards of offense. 3,140 rushing, 1,655 passing.
Iona Prep: Nathaniel Vernon, Sr., LT; Franco Iannacito, Sr., LG; Xavier Tyler, Sr., C; Brian Joselyn, Jr., RG; Michael Calicchia, Jr., RT. 3,908 yards of offense. 1,499 rushing, 2,409 passing.
Advantage… Stepinac. The left side of the line (Harris and Scott) is imposing and dominant. They did a solid job in the first meeting slowing down and wearing out Sheppard.
DEFENSIVE LINE —
Stepinac: Malcolm Koonce, Jr., DE; Chris Jordan, Sr., NG; Terry McDonald-Preston, Sr., DT; Robinson De La Cruz, Jr., DE (Dante Ezkiel-Francis, Sr., DT). Highlights: McDonald-Preston 59 tackles, 7 sacks; Jordan 47 tackles, 4 sacks.
Iona Prep: Dean Nigro, Jr., DE; Darail McCormick, Jr., NT; Qaadir Sheppard, Sr., DE. Highlights: Sheppard 8 sacks.
Advantage… PUSH. Iona Prep might have the best individual player in Sheppard (pictured above) and another stable presence in Nigro, but Stepinac is right there as a whole. The defensive line is deep with Ezkiel-Francis rotating into the middle. Jordan is a solid anchor in the middle and will be healthier than when the teams met in Oct.
Stepinac: Tyquan Ennis, Sr., OLB; Daniel Negron (pictured above), Jr., ILB; Brian Malone, Jr., ILB; Damarcus Miller, Sr., OLB (Dylan Demuro, Sr., OLB; Jordan Gunther, Jr., ILB). Highlights: Negron 116 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT (TD); Malone 61 tackles, 3 sacks; Miller 66 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT; Ennis 59 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF.
Iona Prep: Tommy O’Connor, Sr., OLB; Sal Villano, Sr., ILB; Tom Murphy, Jr., ILB; Bobby Lewis, Sr., OLB. Highlights: Lewis 8 sacks.
Advantage… Stepinac. Both groups are strong, but Stepinac’s linebackers might be the best defensive unit in the area. They are terrific in the pass rush and pass defense and in stopping the run.
DEFENSIVE BACKS —
Stepinac: Gavin Heslop, Sr., CB; Jaychar Howell, Jr., S; T.J. Morrison, Jr., CB (Malik Crawford, Jr., CB). Highlights: Heslop 46 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF. Morrison 4 INT; Howell 68 tackles, 2 INT.
Iona Prep: Synceir Malone, Sr., CB; Taj Marable, Sr., SS; Christian McHugh, Jr., FS; Brian Thompson, Sr., CB. Highlights: Malone 4 INT; Thompson 2 INT.
Advantage… Iona Prep. Stepinac may have the best individual player in Heslop, but Malone (pictured above, left) and Thompson are top corners. Iona’s safeties are among its strengths, too.
SPECIAL TEAMS —
Stepinac: Pat Heffernan, Sr., P, 33.9 avg.; Malcolm Major, Sr., 8 kickoffs for 332 yards; 9 punts for 161 yards; Matt Tierney, Sr., K.
Iona Prep: Joe Argento, Sr., K; Christian Rosell, Jr, KR, 12 kickoffs for 214 yards; Nick Sirena, Jr., P, 33.4 avg.
Advantage… Stepinac. In addition to a reliable kicking game, Major, an elite sprinter, is a game-breaker.
Stepinac: Depth and versatility. Stepinac is the deeper team, which it proved by wearing Iona down in the first meeting. The Crusaders also have more interchangeable parts and can beat an opponent in different ways.
Iona Prep: Experience. As a program, the Gaels and their coaches have played in and coached in more big games over the years. They have not only won this game, they’ve played in it three other times.
Advantage… Stepinac. Coaching experience is great, but the Crusaders’ superior depth and versatility are the ultimate x-factors. They can play just about any style of game.
STEPINAC 28, IONA PREP 13. Both teams enter the game playing as well as they have all season, and therein lies the rub for the Gaels. At its best, no team is better this year than Stepinac. The Crusaders are as strong or stronger in nearly every phase. More importantly, they have few, if any, weaknesses. It will be difficult for Iona Prep to find much to exploit in an opponent that is physical and has excellent team speed. Stepinac’s depth might be the ultimate determining factor. The Gaels may catch the Crusaders on a few big plays. And, of course, they may catch them with a key trick play, which has been something of a trend in this rivalry. Still, Stepinac will be there consistently throughout the night. And if the Crusaders get off to a strong start, watch out. The game might remind you of the second half of their first meeting — a scary thought if you’re an Iona fan.