The coaches in the CHSFL voted Stepinac to finish ninth in the AAA Division in the preseason. What's impressive isn't the fact that the Crusaders can exceed those expectations - but how they've done it.
Stepinac, last year's AA Division champ, travels to Kings Bay in Brooklyn on Sunday to take on Xaverian in the season finale with a chance to earn as high as a No. 5 seed in next week's AAA playoffs.
"We knew coming into the season that we were talented," Stepinac coach Mike O'Donnell said. "I didn't think we could ever judge what it would be like playing against this type of competition every week. Last year we had two players miss games because of injury. This year we've had 22."
Many of the injuries have been on the offensive line, which hasn't been intact for a single game.
Alex Giardini, a junior tackle, tore his MCL in the season opener. Frank Reilly, a guard, missed time with an ankle injury. Brian Douglas, a tight end/tackle, is hobbled with a knee injury.
Stepinac's best defensive lineman, Nakeem Mills of Greenburgh, missed seven games after breaking his foot in the preseason.
"It's been a grind," Stepinac senior Blake Rzemieniewski said. "We're banged up. But now we're healthier than we've been. We feel that as long as we're in the playoffs, we have a chance to make some noise."
Stepinac, which likely will still earn a berth with a loss, has gained confidence through three emotional victories.
It dominated St. Francis Prep, and pulled out fourth-quarter wins over Fordham Prep and last week against Monsignor Farrell.
"We experienced a lot of success in the AA and think that prepared us for this," Mills said. "Getting to playoffs has been our goal. We're in the big leagues now. We're looking to go far."
The continued stellar play of Maurice Easterling will certainly help.
The senior running back has rushed for 848 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 8.1 yards per carry, and caught 31 passes for 414 yards and two scores.
"He is an equalizer sometimes," O'Donnell said. "He can make a big play against a very good team that will keep you in the game. He does things that you won't get on an average team."
On Sunday Stepinac faces a Xaverian team that features three linemen over 6-foot-6, including 6-10 Mike Calicchio. That, though, doesn't faze one of the smallest teams in the AAA.
"I'm 17 years old, and so are they. They're not in college yet," senior center Peter Neubauer said. "Just because you're bigger doesn't mean anything. I've been going up against bigger linemen all year. It's not going to be a factor now."
Stepinac thriving despite adversity
Read Kevin Devaney Jr.'s Varsity Insider blog at varsityinsider.lohudblogs.com.