Mike O’Donnell can't help but notice the growing excitement around his Archbishop Stepinac football team.
The coach has watched his Crusaders win their last 13 games, including a CHSFL Class AA title a year ago. Saturday they make their return to the league’s 'AAA' division, where they were picked fifth by the league’s coaches in the preseason poll.
“There is a lot of excitement here,” O’Donnell said. "I’ve been here a long time so I’ve been through ups and downs. We have more kids in the program than we ever had. Even with our 650 students we have about 140 kids playing football right now."
The program’s seniors understand what they are in for. The last time Stepinac was a 'AAA' team back in 2008 that class was a member of a one-win junior varsity team and they watched the upperclassman finish 7-6 overall that year. It is how his lower-level teams would fare and the size of the schools they would be competing against that has made O’Donnell hesitant to move up in the past. This year’s squad as dedicated themselves to the weight room in preparation.
“We preached to them that we were going to have to get faster and stronger to be able to withstand the punishment of 'AAA' week in and week out,” O’Donnell said. “We know what we are in for.”
The journey begins by visiting Chaminade, one of the league’s most storied programs, in Mineola on Saturday afternoon. Though the schools have only met five times, O’Donnell said he had to go back to 1967 to find the last time they beat them.
The Crusaders will come into the game riding the confidence of a 41-20 win over Middletown in Week 1. Quarterback Mark White ran for 89 yards and a score and threw for 52 more. Daniel Hoffer, who is splitting time with White, threw for 204 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score. They are replacing Tyrell Goodman, who is now at Akron. Caleb Gilligan-Evans rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown. O’Donnell also credited Justin Thomas for dropping a potential 80-yard touchdown pass and coming back to pick up a big first down.
“Saturday we were looking for people who were going to step up and make those plays,” O’Donnell said.
This Saturday will bring a different type of step up.