WHITE PLAINS –
From gleaming new championship rings to freshman, JV and varsity rosters 161 players strong, Stepinac began its title defense Monday inspired by positive vibes. The program remained loaded with talent at the top despite the loss of 10 college-bound players, including five to Division I schools.
Last year’s success and all that reserve of talent has combined to cast the Crusaders in a new light as they set to defend the CHSFL’s AAA championship. They are no longer a little upstart from White Plains. In fact, they are probably the favorite.
“We’ve been talking to the kids about that — that every single game, everyone is going to come after them,” said Stepinac coach Mike O’Donnell, whose team finished 12-1 last season, including the first outright CHSFL title in school history. “People are going to watch them. They are going to be the focus, and it’s very important they do the right things on and off the field and never overlook an opponent.”
Although they had turned into a winner in recent years, starting the season as a title favorite will mark a shift in narrative for the Crusaders. They had long been an underdog to league powers St. Anthony’s, Chaminade and Mount St. Michael, and usually a sparring partner for rival Iona Prep. They destroyed that pecking order for good last year, and opened practice Monday as the league’s No. 1-ranked team.
The roster is populated with returning starters and other role players who are primed and well-prepared to blossom into stars. For example, senior quarterback Tyquell Fields, senior wide receiver Jesse Brown and senior running back Kobe Miranda have evolved into frontline players with the flip of a calendar.
“All summer, we’ve been working and competing with each other. Everyone has gotten a lot better,” said Stepinac senior defensive back T.J. Morrison, one of the team’s most prominent returning starters, who has 10 Division I offers. “I think everybody is ready.”
Fields, in particular, is. He split time last season with Brandon Coleman, who is now at Navy, but projects as one of the league’s top quarterbacks. Brown will replace Rhode Island-bound Giancarlo Furio as the top receiving option. Brown and Fields famously connected on a key Hail Mary pass in Stepinac’s regular-season victory over Iona Prep.
They are two of several players whose touches were limited last year because of the talent around them, but they are clearly capable of much more. Just consider junior Antonio Giannico, who had a Division I offer from Bryant College before ever dressing in a varsity game.
“I think one of the things we’ve done here is do a good job is making sure kids get time,” O’Donnell said. “Our juniors get on the field in a rotation. They may not start and would probably start at a lot of places, but they’re playing behind real good people. The biggest thing is them buying into what we’re doing and we’ve have kids who have done that.”
Of course, Stepinac will return multiple starters, many of who played key roles on the impressive defense that spurred the Crusaders to a 16-14 victory over Iona Prep in last year’s CHSFL AAA final at Fordham University. Senior linebacker Daniel Negron, Morrison, senior defensive back Jaychar Howell and senior defensive ends Malcolm Koonce and Robinson De La Cruz are among the top returning players at their positions in the league.
“I think we have enough talent this year to defend our championship,” Koonce said.