WHITE PLAINS — Since his defense was decimated by St. Anthony's in Week 5, Jonathan DeMarco watched opponents borrow from that game plan. Their relative success against the state's top team presents a conundrum: Should Stepinac do the obvious and scrap a blueprint that was torn up for 55 points or not?
"It's funny because we've seen some other teams replicate what we did and saw it work," said DeMarco, the Crusaders' defensive coordinator. "There are some things you have to hold on to and some things you don't. But defensively, we definitely played bad. We know that."
A complete turnaround could be all that stands between Stepinac and its first outright CHSFL championship in 56 years. But the task is daunting. St. Anthony's will enter Friday night's CHSFL AAA championship game well aware of the gory details: Last month, the Friars piled up 448 yards of offense on 63 plays in a 55-29 regular-season victory.
The Crusaders (8-2) remember it, too.
"They're a great team. They really know how to work a defense," senior linebacker Ryan Wasylenko said. "We were always there to make a play that game, but we didn't make them. We had a lot of missed assignments, a lot of mistakes, but hopefully if we eliminate those, we'll be able to make those plays."
Stepinac believes it has discovered at least a partial solution. After that week, the coaching staff made three personnel changes: Senior Garfield Heslop was moved from outside linebacker to defensive end; senior Nick Shaw from safety to outside linebacker; and sophomore Narendra Itwaru up from the junior varsity and into the lineup at safety.
The turning point came when the Crusaders watched Itwaru star in a 14-6 loss to the St. Anthony's JV. He was promoted immediately and has 40 tackles in the five games since.
Head coach Mike O'Donnell said his team originally put the 6-foot-3, 185-pound Heslop on the outside to better prepare him for college. That kicked Shaw, who was also a returning starter, back to safety, stripping the defense of Shaw's strength of containing the outside.
Now, Shaw has returned to pushing ball carriers back toward the strength of the defense, which is Heslop and Austin Taps at the line of scrimmage.
"We may've had some people playing out of place early in the year," O'Donnell said. "It seems the changes have helped out our defense a lot."
Never more so than in Saturday's 27-21, overtime semifinal victory over Xaverian, the highest-scoring team in the CHSFL. But the Crusaders were better prepared for an offense predicated on speed. Their two losses came against teams that bullied them up the middle: St. Anthony's and Iona Prep.
"It was a great accomplishment, but I think we match up better against a team like Xaverian," DeMarco said. "They're not as big and strong as St. Anthony's, but they're more athletic. They're actually a lot like us."
A continued rash of injuries might help close the apparent gap between St. Anthony's (9-0) and Stepinac. The Friars will play without top receiver Jack Poetzsch and have benched quarterback Pete Carew. Those two connected on seven passes — many on third-and-long — before Poetzsch suffered a season-ending injury in the second half against Stepinac.
The Crusaders expect a better performance for another reason. Heslop said the players were "definitely" overwhelmed last time, but not anymore — at least they hope.
"That was our first time playing them, but we have that experience now," Heslop said. "We're ready to go. We know what they're about now."