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LOHUD.com- Iona Prep & Stepinac

Posted Friday, October 21, 2011 by Josh Thomson

H.S. football: Stepinac back on equal footing with Iona Prep in historic rivalry

12:34 AM, Oct. 21, 2011  |  
Written by
Josh Thomson

The only player on either sideline with a vivid memory is Stepinac's Caleb Gilligan-Evans. The senior running back played against Iona Prep three years ago, at a time when the Gaels were anything but equals.

Gilligan-Evans earned carries and even scored a touchdown as a freshman in 2008, when he was one of many victims in Iona Prep's 35-20 wipeout at Stepinac.

"They were monsters," he said. "They were something to watch that year."

Iona Prep captured the first CHSFL AAA championship in program history, twice treating powerhouse St. Anthony's just as unpleasantly as rival Stepinac. But after years of the Gaels dominating the series and building themselves into annual title contenders, the Crusaders have ventured to join them.

Stepinac beat Iona Prep 23-6 last season to earn just its fourth win over the Gaels since 1985.

Now, with the rivalry renewed, the Crusaders enter Saturday night's Joe Riverso Memorial Game looking to prove that the programs now belong side by side.

"I think they have definitely gone to another level," Iona Prep coach Vic Quirolo said. "They're playing extremely good football. I think our kids know that and see that and I think it's going to be a really good game. They've definitely caught our kids' attention."

Stepinac's ascension includes a pair of CHSFL AA championships in the last four seasons and this year's 5-1 start. The Crusaders were humbled 55-29 by undefeated St. Anthony's two weeks ago before rebounding last week to beat Holy Cross 34-14.

Iona Prep finds itself at 4-2 after dropping two of its last three, including a heartbreaker to Chaminade last week on a last-second, 46-yard field goal. That was the same Chaminade team Stepinac beat earlier this season, a win that has helped move the Crusaders into second place in the CHSFL.

If they beat Iona Prep, they will, in all likelihood, clinch the No. 2 seed for the playoffs. In doing so, it would require Stepinac to prove last year's win wasn't a fluke.

"I know we haven't gotten Iona's attention. For many years in the past, they have expected to win this game," Crusaders coach Mike O'Donnell said. "We are trying to change the attitude. We always have believed we had a shot to win this game over the years. We loved the challenge that it has brought."

Iona Prep has responded in kind. Players have been fueled by last year's loss, a game that saw them buried under the weight of the moment.

The Gaels are even less experienced this season and their inconsistency has shown. But a win would help erase the memory of these last three weeks.

"I feel like we have something to prove," senior lineman Kameron Tedder said.

They'll have to prove it in what O'Donnell believes is the most anticipated meeting between the schools in a decade. The teams moved their game to the end of the regular season in 2001 because of the attacks on 9/11. Stepinac assistant Joe Riverso was among the victims and the game now bears his name.

Riverso will be among those honored Saturday night when the school christens a new $2 million-plus athletic complex. It will start with a field rededication of the new turf to Paul J. Marback and a blessing at 5.

The school showed off the field when it hosted an open house last week and saw a record number of people attend. The Crusaders hope their play can serve as a complement, and prove their years as automatic underdog in this rivalry are over.

"We're hoping to build the program and each year get better and draw in better players to the school each year, both academic-wise, but also because of football," senior Austin Taps said. "We try to improve every year and I think we've really picked it up the last couple years."

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