WHITE PLAINS – Players and coaches almost always posit that every week is different, every game unrelated and disconnected from the one before it. Not surprisingly, the Stepinac football team passed this week when asked to consider its enduring legacy should it beat Cardinal Hayes Saturday night and win a second straight CHSFL AAA championship.
Whether the coaches and players were willing to admit it or not is incidental. Truthfully, if the Crusaders win on Saturday (as most expect), their 2014-15 teams will finish as the area’s best in a decade. And few others really have an argument.
Several programs have enjoyed great success in that time, but none at the highest level or with the level of dominance of Stepinac. The last to sustain this level of excellence at the state’s highest levels of competition ranks among the best Westchester County has ever seen: The 2003-04 New Rochelle Huguenots of Ray Rice, Courtney Greene, Geoff McDermott and others.
“Maybe after the season we’ll start to think about that,” senior linebacker Daniel Negron said as darkness fell at practice Tuesday. “During the season, thinking about that would distract us a little bit. But we’re also not going to not look at the fact that we’re one of the best teams in the tri-state and one of the best teams in the state. It’s a good feeling, but at the same time we’re not going to distract ourselves from our ultimate goal of getting back to the state championship and winning it this year.”
Indeed, the lone blemish for Stepinac these last two years was a loss to Buffalo’s Catholic-school power Canisius in the inaugural CHSAA state championship. The Crusaders are otherwise 22-0, which includes: 19 straight wins in the CHSFL; the first outright CHSFL title in program history; and a 5-0 combined mark against rival Iona Prep and longtime league power St. Anthony’s. They are currently tied as the No. 1-ranked team in the state with Aquinas, the Rochester-based Catholic school favored to win the Class AA public-school state title.
To get to this point, Stepinac hasn’t just beat its competition, it has dominated. Only three of its last 22 games have even been decided by single digits: last year’s CHSFL final against Iona Prep and regular-season games this year against Holy Cross and Monsignor Farrell. In the latter two, the Crusaders built comfortable leads that were trimmed in the final minutes. They have since chased away the late-game complacency, winning their last six by a combined score of 284-76, and running away from both Hayes and St. Anthony’s in the process.
“It wasn’t a long time ago when this just wasn’t possible for us,” coach Mike O’Donnell said. “Now it’s almost like you expect it. You expect us to play well. If we don’t complete a pass, we almost get mad about it.”
The Crusaders don’t quite boast the overall credentials of the great New Rochelle teams, which sent Rice and Greene to the NFL and several players to Division I FBS programs like Stanford, Rutgers and Temple. But O’Donnell and his players have dominated by virtue of their vast depth of talent. Nine seniors from last year went to play in college and will be joined by several of the current seniors.
The Crusaders were so talented last year that senior Tyquell Fields — an obvious Division I talent with 1,922 yards and 20 touchdowns this year — played part-time at quarterback and leading rusher Antonio Giannico played on the JV despite having already fielded a Division I offer from Bryant.
The influx of talent hasn’t exactly abated. Giannico is just part of a talented junior class poised to keep Stepinac at or near the top of its league in the near-future. But, first, history awaits the Crusaders on Saturday, their legacy as one of the area’s greatest teams in years all but complete.
CHSAA AAA CHAMPIONSHIP
No. 1 Stepinac (10-0) vs. No. 2 Cardinal Hayes (8-2)
When: Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Fordham University
Key players:Stepinac — Tyquell Fields, Sr., QB; Daniel Negron, Sr., LB/FB; T.J. Morrison, Sr., WR/CB. Cardinal Hayes — Timothy Poindexter, Sr., S; Justin Covington, Sr., RB; Shameen Jones, Jr., WR/S.
Outlook: After winning the first outright CHSFL title in program history, the Crusaders have returned to the championship game riding a 19-game league winning streak. They haven’t lost to a CHSFL opponent since falling in the semifinals to St. Anthony’s on Nov. 16, 2013. Stepinac beat Hayes at home, 43-21, on Oct. 10 behind two touchdown passes and a pair of scores on the ground from Fields. The talented Covington leads Hayes with 1,489 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground, but the Stepinac defense held him to 46 yards — and that was without star linebacker Negron, who was out with a concussion. Like Stepinac, Hayes has thrived thanks to its speed and athleticism, but the experience gap is significant. This will be Hayes’ first appearance in a CHSFL AAA final while Stepinac has returned more than a dozen contributors from last year.
Up next: The winner will meet Monsignor Martin Association champion St. Francis, which beat Canisius 42-7, for the CHSAA state championship on Nov. 28 at a site near Buffalo and time to be determined.