With their records all an unblemished 0-0, nearly every team looks toward new seasons with cautious optimism on the first day of practice. Thanks a regular-season league championship last year, a pair of superstars and a deep base of returning talent, Stepinac is being anything but cautious. The optimism and excitement for 2010 is overflowing.
I wrote a story for today’s paper about the Crusaders’ first day of practice. Without prompting, many of the players couldn’t contain their excitement about their season opener on Sept. 11 at Iona Prep. Of course, the teams didn’t meet at all last year as the Gaels opted to play Bergen Catholic at Giants Stadium with their open date (and understandably so). And it hasn’t been the most passionate rivalry lately, with Stepinac having lost every meeting since 2002.
This year, Stepinac feels very strongly about its chances to end that streak. Iona was ravaged by losses to graduation and now by injury. On the other hand, Stepinac feels strong about nearly every aspect of its roster, with the possible exception of an inexperienced offensive line.
As I said yesterday, Mike O’Donnell believes his team has a shot. Articulate senior captain Brian Byrnes best expressed the feeling within camp.
“I’m counting down. This is the year. We can just feel it,” Byrnes said. “We going to go in and we’re just going to go home with a ‘W.’”
Senior safety Jeff Clack wanted to play Iona Prep so badly, he changed his travel plans. Clack and his family scheduled a family cruise for this week for over a year. It was a family reunion, but it would’ve cost him the required number of practices for the season opener and also the opportunity to play Iona Prep. He only recently convinced his parents to let him stay home.
Clack is one of several key returning pieces for the Crusaders. The biggest names are QB Tyrell Goodman and DE Donnie Simmons. Goodman has received heavy Division I and II interest, including from Division Is Akron, Temple and Stony Brook, while Simmons has already committed to Syracuse.
Another budding star is junior FB Caleb Gilligan-Evans, a player O’Donnell said could average 20 carries per game. Senior RB Anthony Obi, junior Lance Ladson and sophomore Justin Thomas could join Gilligan-Evans in the backfield. Obi earned some carries last year and Thomas earned his spot on the varsity with a strong offseason. He’s more of a game-breaker than a running back, so expect the Crusaders to get him the ball in a number of ways. Another receiving option is reliable senior WR Nick Euvino.
One area where Stepinac should be strong is at tight end. The strong and athletic Simmons will see some time there but is primarily a defensive player. O’Donnell is lucky. He expects he won’t need Simmons much on offense because of Mahopac transfer Austin Taps, the basketball player who also has the size to be a key two-way player for the Crusaders. He’s a 6-4, 225-pound junior.
One worry for Stepinac is the offensive line. Center Joe Mattiaccio will be a three-year starter, but he is the only blocker back from last season. The progression of the line will be critical if the Crusaders are to meet their expectations. They also lost their defensive tackles but are so strong at defensive end with Simmons and Taps it may not matter.
Two solid linebackers return for the defense in Byrnes and Robert Kocur, a pair O’Donnell expressed confidence in. The secondary is much younger, although he believes Clack is a major difference maker. Clack can play running back as well but is so vital to the defense that he’ll carry the ball sparingly.
O’Donnell said this summer hard work, more than just the talent, turned him into a true believer. His nighttime weightlifting sessions averaged 27 kids, up from the typical 15. “These kids didn’t go away,” he said. “They love football.”