Stepinac and Iona Prep set to meet for the the CHSFL AAA championship Saturday at Fordham
Twenty-one years ago, long before any of their current players were born, Iona Prep and Stepinac met for the CHSFL's A division championship at St. John's. It was a title game in name only for two programs often hovering in the league's middle.
The real championship was held that day, too, played between teams with linemen so towering they cast a shadow.
"We watched St. Anthony's walk across the field and were like, 'Wow. That's a team,' " said Felix Petrillo, an Iona Prep assistant then and now. "Did I ever think that would be us? I'd have been shocked."
The progress from then to now has been slow and steady, especially for Stepinac, which earned a share of its first and only league title in 1955. But the two Westchester schools are modernized and have evolved into CHSFL powers. They will meet at 4:30 Saturday afternoon at Fordham University for the AAA championship.
Fans have flooded the schools for tickets and are expected to challenge the stadium's 7,000-seat capacity. In all likelihood, this is the most important game in the history of a rivalry that dates to 1950.
"The student body is really excited," Stepinac senior quarterback Brandon Coleman said. "Everybody is into it. Our coaches are into it. They all know what's at stake and know what we want the end result to be. We've been working really hard for it."
For players on both sides, that effort dates back to the offseason. For individuals integral in growing the programs, it has been ongoing for years.
Iona Prep teetered on the cusp of its breakthrough first. The Gaels were often among the league's top 10-15 teams for years, but have earned four trips to the CHSFL final since 2005, including an AAA title in 2008.
When Vic Quirolo, a Stepinac alum, was hired as the head coach in 2003, he and Patrillo, an Iona Prep grad, created a demanding program with first-rate facilities. They expanded the offseason program and improved results in the weight room.
Not coincidentally, the Gaels also won the 2008 title a year after installing their spread offense.
"We were one of the first schools in the Catholic league to have a turf field," said Quirolo, now in his 12th season. "And I think we were one of the first schools to go with a spread offense. That paid dividends. Kids would consider other schools, but if they were a good athlete — a good receiver, or a good running back — they decided to come here because of the system that we ran."
Stepinac followed an almost identical plan, one that was formulated beginning in 2006. That's when longtime head coach Mike O'Donnell made a unique decision: He installed Joe Spagnolo, a former Iona Prep quarterback, and Jonathan Demarco, one of O'Donnell's former players, as his offensive and defensive coordinators and gave them free rein.
"I let them call the offense and defense," O'Donnell said. "I worry about getting kids into college. I worry about their grades. I make sure they don't get into trouble. I worry about Twitter accounts, social media. I worry about that stuff."
It's worked. The Crusaders were undefeated and won an AA championship in 2010. They reached the AAA final the next year and have now won their last two against Iona Prep after the Gaels went 25-4 from 1985 through the first of two meetings last year.
O'Donnell said Stepinac benefited from going independent, beginning with the 2009-10 school year. The school has forged a stronger bond with its alumni, and eventually raised $2.5 million to build an expansive turf field for football, baseball and other sports.
The coach may also double as the school's best promoter. His Twitter handle, @StepinacSports, has nearly 1,000 more followers than the school's main account.
"Every Sunday morning I send out a highlight package," O'Donnell said. "A lot of people are following it. More and more kids are showing up here and saying, hey, we're interested in coming here to play. The Harlem Jets (a youth football team) sent a bus up to one of our games. They're looking for an alternative along a train line."
Both schools have produced some of the area's top football players for years. Iona Prep senior Qaadir Sheppard is the area's top recruit, with offers from the likes of Boston College and North Carolina. Each team has a defensive back (Iona Prep's Synceir Malone, Stepinac's Damarcus Miller) committed to Stony Brook. Coleman has committed to play at Navy and lineman Dwayne Scott and cornerback Gavin Heslop are among the other seniors with Division I offers.
"Our kids are college eligible now. That's become a priority," said Spagnolo, who played quarterback at Bryant College. "We monitor freshmen and sophomores in the building and make sure they're taking classes and doing well in the classes so they will pass the NCAA Clearinghouse.
"It hasn't happened overnight at all. To get to the top of this league, it can't. Nobody is there by accident. They're there because they're putting the time in."
If there's one bond Iona Prep and Stepinac share most of all, it's improved talent. The facilities, stable coaching staffs and extra effort by the schools' administrations — both send buses into certain areas unserved by public transit — have helped draw promising student-athletes away from city schools that lack those resources.
"I choose this school because I felt like Iona and Stepinac were the only two schools in the area who took football as seriously as I wanted to," said Malone, a Bronx resident.
Ultimately, the answer is that simple.
"Stepinac and Iona are the two hot schools in the area," Petrillo said. "Kids want to come there."
And no one's shocked now.
Stepinac-Iona Prep rivalry
Stepinac dominated the early years, but Iona Prep leads the all-time series 39-27 after winning 25 of the last 31 meetings. The Crusaders have won the last two, including a 35-19 win on Oct. 4.
1950s — 1950: Stepinac, 30-13. 1951: Stepinac, 24-19. 1952: Stepinac, 26-21. 1953: Iona Prep, 34-6. 1954: Iona Prep, 20-6. 1955: Stepinac, 31-7. 1956: Stepinac, 25-14. 1957: Stepinac, 26-14. 1958: Stepinac, 38-8. 1959: Stepinac, 22-0.
1960s — 1960: Stepinac, 36-34. 1961: Stepinac, 26-12. 1962: Stepinac, 44-0. 1963: Stepinac, 28-26. 1964: Stepinac, 14-6. 1965: Iona Prep, 16-14. 1966: Stepinac, 40-0. 1967: Iona Prep, 22-15. 1968: Iona Prep, 16-0. 1969: Iona Prep, 26-8.
1970s — 1970: Stepinac, 26-12. 1971: Iona Prep, 28-14. 1972: Iona Prep, 25-14. 1973: Stepinac, 11-0. 1974: Iona Prep, 38-6. 1975: Iona Prep, 14-0. 1976: Stepinac, 14-8. 1977: Iona Prep, 31-22. 1978: Stepinac, 20-7. 1979: Iona Prep, 6-0.
1980s — 1980: Stepinac, 13-6. 1981: Iona Prep, 28-6. 1982: Iona Prep, 12-7. 1983: Stepinac, 24-0. 1984: Stepinac, 16-13. 1985: Iona Prep, 26-7. 1986: Iona Prep, 18-7. 1987: Iona Prep, 13-7. 1988: Iona Prep, 27-12. 1989: Iona Prep, 35-6.
1990s — 1990: Iona Prep, 27-14. 1991: Stepinac, 20-7. 1992: Iona Prep, 33-12. 1993: Iona Prep, 35-0. 1993: Iona Prep, 13-0 (A championship). 1994: Iona Prep, 28-7. 1995: Iona Prep, 33-14. 1996: Iona Prep, 34-16. 1997: Iona Prep, 16-12. 1998: Iona Prep, 47-14. 1999: Iona Prep, 28-7.
2000s — 2000: Iona Prep, 21-14. 2001: Stepinac, 23-0. 2002: Stepinac, 23-6. 2003: Iona Prep, 23-20. 2004: Iona Prep, 27-0. 2005: Iona Prep, 34-6. 2006: Iona Prep, 54-21. 2007: Iona Prep, 20-6. 2008: Iona Prep, 35-20. 2009: DNP.
2010s — 2010: Stepinac, 23-6. 2011: Iona Prep, 30-17. 2012: Iona Prep, 42-14. 2013: Iona Prep, 40-14. 2013: Stepinac, 10-7 (AAA quarterfinals). 2014: Stepinac, 35-19.