The CHSFL season opened today across the metro New York area. Our focus this morning was on two of the league’s best, Iona Prep and Stepinac. Those were my two stops on the LoHud camp tour this morning.
When you’re talking about Iona and Stepinac, you’re talking about the No. 2 and No. 3-ranked teams in the league from last season. (I’ll leave the order up to you.) Will they remain that high in 2010? Who knows, but it will require a significant amount of work. Iona Prep will be without defensive anchor Mike Longo, CHSFL AAA offensive MVP Sidney Weston and QB Tim Perley, among others. Stepinac lost Journal News player of the year Tyrell Goodman and DE Donnie Simmons. They ended up at Akron and Syracuse, respectively.
IONA PREP —
The re-tooling began months ago, but it continues in earnest starting today. I saw that first-hand at Iona Prep, where the QB battle rages on between Mario Biaggi and Justin Combs, and where Shaquille Townsend hopes to fill the gaping hole left in the wake of Weston’s graduation.
Early this morning, as the Gaels worked on defense, Biaggi took most of the snaps at QB as Combs — a returning starter at CB — worked on defense. I asked coach Vic Quirolo about the QB competition and he said it remains open.
“This will be a good week to take a look and see where we’re at,” Quirolo said.
He expects Townsend to earn carries as the team’s featured back. Townsend appears to have the size and athleticism to transition smoothly into the job. Returning WRs Omari Buster and Brandon Williams will be the primary targets on the outside, along with Austin Jones.
“Right now, our running back is very strong. We’re still figuring out who’s going to play quarterback. I think by the end of two-a-days, we’ll have it figured out,” said Combs. “All three guys are good quarterbacks, so it’s just going to be who shows out and wins the job.”
I also asked Quirolo about junior Chris Cooper, who, like Townsend, is a gamebreaker from Mount Vernon. Cooper played DB last season and Quirolo said that will remain his focus for now. You can expect Cooper to mix in on offense, but right now he’s primarily a defensive player.
Judging by where the talent sits right now, Iona’s defense seems to be further along. Two-way starter Kameron Tedder should be a force at tackle and DE, but he is more of a nightmare on defense rushing the passer. Combs and Cooper will be a formidable tandem in the backfield, along with Dan Fischer. Plus, junior Matt Berni, a returning starter, will slot into the middle for Longo. Quirolo loves Berni’s leadership and ability to make plays.
After the first morning practice, Iona climbed the hill toward the locker room, where they were going to break for film study and lunch before this afternoon’s practice. Quirolo spent the morning admonishing a few players out of frustration. He said it’s too early to judge this team so early in camp, but he believes the talent is on par with year’s past.
The team’s leaders were heeding his call. Both Combs and Tedder said Iona has strides to make the next two weeks leading up to their Sept. 3 scrimmage with Greenwich.
“We have a lot of young guys coming in, so we’re not where we need to be yet, but we will be by the end of two-a-days,” Tedder said. “I’d say we’re about 50 percent right now. We have a lot of young, young guys. But it’s our job as seniors to help bring them along and get them ready to play.”
The league’s defending AA champ spent the morning practicing on a field near Highlands in White Plains. In fact, it will be a number of weeks until Stepinac can forget its nomadic days. The school’s new home field won’t be ready until Week 6 at the earliest, which is why the first four games are all on the road and Week 5 vs. St. Anthony’s has been scheduled for White Plains.
Mike O’Donnell said the hope is to play at home in Week 6 against Holy Cross, followed by Week 7 against Iona Prep. In the meantime, O’Donnell will shuttle a pretty explosive team around for practices and games.
Just like last season, the talent is very strong at the top. Goodman and Simmons are gone, as are college players Jeff Clack and Brian Byrnes, but Stepinac has a new batch of seniors with collegiate potential. TE/DE Austin Taps has yet to receive offers but just went on a trip to James Madison and William & Mary. RB Caleb Gilligan-Evans has offers from Yale and Bryant. And OLB Garfield Heslop and WR/OLB Vincent Narog are returning standouts O’Donnell believes can have big seasons.
Heslop received Division I interest, but his weight (180) could be a deterrent for programs at that level. It won’t prevent him from dominating in high school, despite this being just his second year of football. “He’s going to have a big year for us,” O’Donnell said.
The offense is almost completely set. The 240-pound Gilligan-Evans will be a featured back for his fourth straight year. He will play one way because he will carry the load on offense. The ever-growing Taps is a target at TE, and Narog, who has bulked up as well, will be a threat yet again at receiver after a strong junior season.
Two more featured players on offense return as well: HB Lance Ladson and slot WR Justin Thomas. What Gilligan-Evans and Taps offer in punch, Ladson and Thomas provide in explosion. So will one half of the QB tandem of Mark White and Dan Hoffer. O’Donnell compared White to Maurice Easterling based on his explosiveness, while Hoffer led the JV to a CHSFL championship last fall.
The offensive line has plenty of experience as well. Both tackles return: 6-foot-4, 315-pound Dan Pomposello on the left and 6-foot-3, 285-pound Christos Aloizos on the right side. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Jesse Gwin will slide from guard to center, and 6-2, 245-pound Martin Perpepaj will start at right guard.
Even with left guard still open, O’Donnell believes this is the biggest line he’s ever had, and that Pomposello — only a junior — is the program’s next major Division I prospect.
Perhaps the biggest changes come on defense, where about half of Stepinac’s starters return — although there will be plenty of realignment.
Taps, Heslop and Narog are all key pieces. Narog will shift from DB to OLB, but the Crusaders will still look to find players to set alongside Taps up front. Brynes’ graduation leaves a hole in the middle, and captain Ryan Wasylenko will be asked to fill it. Another returning LB, Nick Shaw, will move back to safety, and Shane Hogan and White will likely play the CBs.
Despite all the changes and a schedule that is undoubtedly different, Stepinac believes it has the pieces in place to compete in the AAA and without all those senior stars.
“The team changes each year,” Taps said. “Last year’s team was definitely different than this year’s team. But as a group, we’re strong enough that we can fill those roles.”