With five Division I-AA players lost to graduation and two Division I-A stars lost the year before that, Stepinac would appear to have taken a step backwards after two of the better seasons in program history. It would only be natural, but the players aren’t ready to rebuild.
“We just reloading,” senior quarterback Dan Hoffer said. “It’s not like we’re rebuilding. Everyone’s saying we’re losing a lot of people, but we have kids who are going to step up. It’s high school football. People will step up and make big plays.”
And to what extent?
“I expect to be at Yankee Stadium,” Hoffer added. “That’s our expectation and that’s everyone expectation here at Stepinac.”
That would probably require a dynamic offense considering the defense has more holes to fill. CHSFL defensive player of the year Austin Taps and Garfield Heslop are gone, leaving holes at defensive end. The Crusaders also lost Brian Byrnes and Vincent Narog, who were key playmakers at linebacker.
The middle of the defense returns some key pieces. Juniors Michael Carlucci and Brian Harris started at the tackles as sophomore. Tom Dedviani will start at inside linebacker; he made a couple key stops, including one on fourth down, in last year’s AAA championship game against St. Anthony’s. Narendra Itwaru also returns at safety after coming up from the JV to help revitalize the defense midseason last year. Joanquin Spencer is also back after starting last year at corner.
The rest of the defense will rely on new faces or old faces in new places. One key will be 6-foot, 215-pound senior Sterling Lovelock, who will shift outside from tackle to end to fill Taps’ old role. A young group of linebackers will join Dedviani: senior Sekret Kukaj, and juniors Albert Mehaj and Ryan Prescott. Another name to watch is future star Gavin Heslop. The sophomore, who is the younger brother of Garfield, is in competition to win the other cornerback slot.
The offense has more pieces in place. Harris©, Carlucci (RT), Arthur Foti (LG) and 305-pound three-year starter Dan Pomposello (LT) all return on the line. Only RG Joe Iobbi is inexperienced.
Of course, Hoffer played part-time at QB last year. He probably has the best arm in the area, but still needs to refine his touch. The main option at RB is Ryan Burnett, but returning contributor Chrystian Lopez and dynamic newcomer Isiah Sanjuan.
Hoffer’s best offensive weapon might be Tarik Stovall, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound TE who Mike O’Donnell called the most improved player on the team. Third-year WR Justin Thomas will be another top option, and remember Demarcus Miller. The 6-foot-1 sophomore is and up-and-coming basketball player from New Rochelle who the coaches expect to find a role on offense.
“We should be good either running or passing,” Burnett said. “Everything should gel together nicely by next week and hopefully by this week.”
O’Donnell said Stepinac should benefit from both the improvements at the school and the growth of the program. The new turf field was covered this afternoon with two football teams and the soccer program. Last year at this time, the teams were shuttling across White Plains and West Harrison to find field space.
The football program has now swelled to over 150 players, including 56 on the varsity. O’Donnell said both numbers are higher than they’ve ever been in more than 20 years coaching at Stepinac. The school has seen its enrollment expand. It graduated approximately 130 boys, but welcomed a freshman class of about 200.
Optimism is running higher than many on the outside might expect.
“I think we really have a great group here,” Pomposello said. “We’ve been working hard in the offseason conditioning and here in the weight room. The first day was all right. We’re starting to mesh together now. We have a really good group here.”