At this point last summer, poised yet again to compete for a CHSFL championship, Iona Prep opened its
Iona Prep expected to beat Stepinac in Week 1, but the Crusaders forged an alternative plan, winning 23-6 en route to the only perfect season in program history.
With Stepinac joining the AAA Division, it will meet the Gaels under the lights at home on Oct. 22 with much more than bragging rights on the line. Still, neither team spent much time at Monday's opening practices worrying about the other.
Both are concerned about far more than that, such as having to replace some of the league's top players.
"I want to beat them more than anything, to be honest," Gaels senior Justin Combs said. "But when the time comes, we'll be more worried about that. Right now, we're just trying to get everybody equipped with the system."
The Gaels' preparation must include solving the following riddles: How will they replace running back Sidney Weston, the AAA Division offensive player of the year? And who will step in at quarterback for 1,000-yard passer Tim Perley?
The top candidate for the former is Shaquille Townsend, a dynamic runner from Mount Vernon. But quarterback remains an open competition, with Combs, a starting cornerback, and junior Mario Biaggi the top contenders.
The offense's overall performance drew the ire of a frustrated coach Vic Quirolo Monday, but he said struggles and inconsistency are hallmarks of any early workout, especially the first.
"Each year is different, so we take it year by year," Quirolo said. "Today, there were some growing pains, but you're going to go through that early on. We just take it day by day."
Perhaps last year's Week 1 loss taught the Gaels the importance of living in the present. Stepinac certainly has their attention this season, although the Crusaders must address gaping holes left on their own roster by graduation.
None are bigger than at quarterback, where Journal News Westchester/Putnam player of the year Tyrell Goodman has left for Akron after perhaps the best individual season in program history. Defensive end Donnie Simmons (Syracuse) and safety Jeff Clack (Southern Connecticut) are two more scholarship players now gone.
"For us, it's not really about replacing them," senior running back Caleb Gilligan-Evans said. "It's not about being the next Rabbit (Goodman) or Donnie. It's about doing what you can do to help the team."
Goodman's replacement will come in the form of two juniors: Danny Hoffer and Mark White. Hoffer led the junior varsity to a CHSFL championship last season, while Stepinac coach Mike O'Donnell compares White's explosiveness to that of former star Maurice Easterling. O'Donnell plans on shuffling both to take advantage of their strengths.
The quarterback duo will benefit from the presence of Gilligan-Evans — a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who has fielded college offers from Yale and Bryant — and mountainous
A challenging AAA schedule awaits, with opponents such as St. Anthony's and, yes, Iona Prep, hungry to test them.
"We're not really focusing on any particular game. We're just trying to focus on working hard," Taps said. "As a coaching staff and as players, we feel ready."