I visited the Crusaders at practice tonight at Passidomo Park in Sliver Lake (West Harrison). They were working on the turf under the lights with their JV, which plays a championship game on its own on Saturday.
As you’d imagine, Stepinac was confident about Saturday’s championship game against Kellenberg. As you may know (OK, that one is a joke — I know you know), Stepinac played a AA schedule this season while Kellenberg played a AAA schedule, but that is where the disadvantages die for Stepinac. All the comparisons between common opponents favor the Crusaders. Not only did they beat an Iona Prep team that trounced Kellenberg 33-8, they won by wider margins against Christ the King (33 to 23) and St. Francis Prep (40 to 15). They also whooped Cardinal Hayes twice — the same Hayes that beat Monsignor Farrell, which beat Kellenberg.
Now, I know that’s a lot of convoluted math, but it all adds up to favor the Stepinac. And that’s just the objective material. Subjectively, the Crusaders appear to hold advantages over Kellenberg in both size and athleticism. Kellenberg plays players exclusively one-way, and its top players are receivers Tim Wienclaw and Matt McDaniels, the top targets of do-or-die Nick Fiore. But the QB has thrown as many picks as touchdowns.
Utilizing those skill players on offense leaves Kellenberg with an undersized defense that had been burned for the fifth-most yards per game (319) and second-most touchdowns (34) this season in the AAA through nine games.
Stepinac coach Mike O’Donnell told me his biggest fear is how the defense handles Kellenberg’s offense, which he compared to that of Iona Prep. It is open, and it tends to favor the pass over the run. That combination could definitely lead to a Stepinac blowout, but it will also test the Crusaders and force them to make defensive plays around the field. But one of the many strengths that makes Stepinac so tough is its bookends, Donnie Simmons and Austin Taps (pictured, top), who have combined for 15 sacks.
Talk often shifts to superstars when it comes to Stepinac, and it’s because they are so intriguing and talented. But the Crusaders’ success this year is hardly a three or four-man show. Seniors Jeff Clack (safety), Brian Brynes(linebacker) and Anthony Obi (linebacker) and junior Garfield Heslop (linebacker) are all defensive standouts. And wide receiver Nick Euvino (pictured, right) has delivered a terrific season as well. Check out their stats here.
It appears like Stepinac simply has too much talent to lose Saturday, but it’s not just the quality of its players and the numbers that suggest a second CHSFL title in four years. The Crusaders also arrive with an edge, which I’ll write more about for Friday’s paper.
The truth is, last year proved to be a disappointment after they dropped a pair of games following an 8-0 start. Now, Stepinac has gone 10-0 for the first time in program history and has an opportunity to finish the season unbeaten for the first time ever. It motivates the players, as does last year’s disheartening finish. So there’s no looking past Kellenberg to White Plains, nor is there satisfaction with what’s been accomplished so far.
As O’Donnell has asked the players, “How do you want to be remembered?”
The Crusaders had more to say about the topic, but I’ll leave that until Friday morning when we’ll run a story on both Stepinac and Iona Prep’s quest for championships.