As Salesianum-St. Mark’s football games go, this one appears to be a little lopsided.
But it’s a Salesianum-St. Mark’s football game, so both sides are expecting it to be closer than expected. The archrivals meet at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with the big stage of Delaware Stadium serving as host for the first time. And anything could happen.
“This is a rivalry game. This is a game that means everything to both sides,” Salesianum coach Bill DiNardo said. “This is a game that the most talented team doesn’t always win. The team with the most fire in their belly and the team that performs best that night wins.”
The Sals are 8-1 and ranked No. 1 in Division I, the only loss coming to Father Judge in Philadelphia. They have already swept William Penn, Smyrna, Middletown, Sussex Tech and Concord – the Nos. 2-6 teams in Division I – by an average of 20.4 points per game.
“They’re riding high. … They’ve beaten all the top Division I teams,” St. Mark’s coach John Wilson said. “We know we’ve got to play a really excellent game, put things all together, to have a chance of keeping things within range.”
The Spartans, on the other hand, are 4-5 and moved down to Division II this season due to declining enrollment. But don’t expect Salesianum to underestimate its rival.
“We are definitely the favorite. We understand that,” DiNardo said. “But man, we understand the importance of this game. We understand the rivalry. And we understand the fact that St. Mark’s is going to come out and play their very, very best.”
If the Sals need any motivation they can look to last year, when St. Mark’s beat them 28-21.
“We remember that,” DiNardo said. “We remember that very well. It was a very discouraging loss. They played great. They had fire in their belly, they cashed in on any mistakes that we made, and they made big plays.”
DiNardo has also told his team about 2008, when the tables were turned. St. Mark’s was 7-2, Sallies was 4-5. With most expecting the Spartans to win, the Sals pulled a 15-13 upset.
“We were 4-5, and we said this game was our Super Bowl,” DiNardo said. “We were not getting in the state tournament, and St. Mark’s was in the state tournament. And we shocked them.”
Wilson is also relying on the underdog angle, and the crazy things that have happened in this rivalry in the past.
“I told our guys, ‘They’re bigger, they’re faster, they’re stronger. On paper,’” the St. Mark’s coach said. “But anything goes in these kinds of games. We’ve been in that situation before. We’ve been in situations where I felt we were the better team, and we wound up being in a dogfight.”
The Spartans’ record may be a little misleading. St. Mark’s opened the season with a 19-14 loss to Newark, then dropped a 14-13 heartbreaker at Lake Forest. They lost 20-16 to Division II top-ranked St. Georges on a late fourth-down pass, and fell 33-31 to St. Elizabeth last week when a last-second field goal sailed inches wide.
“It’s unfair to our guys,” Wilson said. “It’s almost like people think we’re having a really down year. It’s four plays away from being 8-1, in my opinion.”
St. Mark’s has capable playmakers in Jamai Rice, Eric Cella, Austin Colmery and Peyton Schultz. The Sals have a distinct weight advantage on both lines, and 6-foot-4, 225-pound Colby Reeder wreaking havoc behind them at tailback and safety.
Still, DiNardo is wary.
“We say it every year, that you throw the records out in this game,” the Sallies coach said. “They mean nothing. The past means nothing. What happens from 7:30 to 9:30, that’s what’s going to matter.”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ