WHITE PLAINS – Although the coaches and players refuted it then, Stepinac didn’t exactly embrace the inaugural CHSAA state championship game.
The Crusaders slogged through practice during their two-week layoff last year, having been plenty satisfied after defeating rival Iona Prep to claim the program’s first outright CHSFL title in the league’s 61 seasons. That listlessness probably didn’t affect the outcome, a 23-10 loss to Canisius, the state’s No. 1-ranked team, but it didn’t help. Stepinac committed four turnovers and had two punts blocked.
“We left the game last year with a sour taste in our mouths because we thought we could’ve won,” coach Mike O’Donnell said. “We probably didn’t win because of the way we prepared. There were people who didn’t want to play the game. Now, I think they’re excited about the opportunity.”
The Crusaders have a different mindset upon their return to the state final, which will be played at 1 p.m. Saturday at Grand Island High School. They left last season still longing for that perfect season, an accomplishment they can realize by beating St. Francis this week.
“We’ve gone back to back now, so we had won that (CHSFL) championship before, but we’ve never been a state champion,” senior T.J. Morrison said. “We’re hungry for it.”
For Stepinac, this week will be different regardless of the outcome. After playing last year’s game at Mitchel Field, the CHSFL’s unofficial home in Uniondale, the Crusaders will depart for Buffalo Friday morning. O’Donnell has arranged for the team to practice at the University at Buffalo and stay to watch Buffalo play UMass.
Stepinac arranged the activities with the help of one of its alumni, Rob Ianello, who is Buffalo’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. It will be the program’s first overnight road trip since a 1988 trip to Killingly, Connecticut, according to O’Donnell.
“I think they’re excited about going somewhere to play and the whole experience,” O’Donnell said.
A victory Saturday would allow the Crusaders’ seniors to bolster a legacy unmatched in program history. They are already 23-1 the last two seasons, which resulted in the school’s only two outright CHSFL league titles ever. (Stepinac shared the title in 1955).
Stepinac can also finish the season as the state’s co-No. 1 in Class AA, which would be another first. The Crusaders enter the weekend in a tie with Aquinas, the favorite to win Sunday’s public-school state championship.
“Everybody is doubting us, saying that last year’s team was probably the best in Stepinac history, but if we win the state and can secure that spot — if we’re No. 1 — then there’s no more doubt,” Morrison said.
Winning a state title would set another precedent, one future Stepinac teams would be tasked with trying to match.
“This year we’re trying to do something that last year’s team didn’t do,” senior quarterback Tyquell Fields said. “That’s our thing. We want to make history, so we’re pretty pumped up for this game.”