It could be compared to the first day in a new school. The unease that comes with exiting a comfort zone, leaving behind what you had grown accustomed to, having to adjust quickly to different settings.
But within a few weeks, the Our Lady of Lourdes High School football team had a seat at the “cool” table in the cafeteria. And now, the Warriors are near the head of the class.
The team has not only held its own but excelled in its first season in Class A. Lourdes (4-2) earned the third seed entering Friday’s 7 p.m. Section 1 qualifying round game, where it will host No. 14 Pearl River. And, this former Class B titan, tossed into a bigger pond, now has a legitimate chance to make a deep postseason run.
“A lot of people didn’t think we’d be that good in Class A,” said quarterback Dean Rotger, whose team has won four of its last five games. “To come out here and show that we’re able to means a lot.”
Section 1’s decision to move the Warriors up from Class B before this season was initially met with resistance, and coach Brian Walsh believed his team was “kicked out” of its rightful class.
Lourdes had won two of the last three Class B section titles and the league determined its talent level was more befitting Class A, despite the school’s enrollment hovering around 700 students. Lourdes, by the section’s rules, must remain in Class A for at least another year.
“I said, ‘We can’t change it, so let’s just deal with it,’” center Kevin Doyle said of his initial reaction. “We couldn’t get discouraged. We have to believe we can succeed anywhere.”
But with the jump came obvious disadvantages. A higher level of competition, sure. But Lourdes also would be facing some unfamiliar teams, and opponents with greater depth. And, for the first time in a while, the Warriors might not have been the favorite.
“But our expectations didn’t change,” Walsh said. “We’ve got some great skill players, so I’m not surprised we’ve done well.”
Indeed, the Warriors have a talented core that likely would succeed in any class. That includes Rotger, an elite signal-caller whom during a Tuesday practice drew strong reviews from a college coach who was among the spectators. Luke Timm, their 6-foot-5 receiver, has been at times unstoppable. Toss in a slew of others like Billy Wagner, Chris Mulvey, Liam McGhee, Billy Riccardi, Corey Mullaly and Joe Scaglione.
“We always had that target on our backs (in Class B),” Rotger said. “So to come in and not be the target takes a little stress off. But we have to play like we’re an underdog.”
In that case, the Warriors have pulled their share of upsets. Walsh said last week’s 56-15 rout of John Jay-Cross River was his most fulfilling victory, but it was perhaps Lourdes’ 40-3 trouncing of Somers on Sept. 18 that signaled a salvo. Somers, along with Rye and Yorktown, were the Class A teams picked ahead of the Warriors in the Section 1 preseason rankings.
The biggest difference in Class A, Walsh said, is the opponents’ physicality and, of course, the depth.
“You’ll see a lot of these teams with like 50 kids on their roster,” Rotger said, “and then you look at us with about 30.”
While most of Lourdes’ starters play offense and defense, rarely substituting, many of their opponents have the luxury of being able to rotate players throughout the game, OT/DT Liam Hilderbrand said. The result is Lourdes players, while dealing with fatigue by the fourth quarter, often are lined up across from opponents less exhausted. But that challenge was expected, Hilderbrand said, and a greater emphasis was placed on offseason conditioning.
There also has been an adjustment to the speed and athleticism of opposing offenses, Walsh said. But Lourdes’ defense has been able to match up. Scaglione and Wagner, in particular, are playmaking linebackers with excellent range. The Warriors have held opponents to 12.3 points per game.
Offensively, Lourdes has faced more exotic schemes, with defenses knowing well the reputation of their high-powered attack. Teams have either blitzed Rotger frequently or dropped extra defenders into coverage in an attempt to confuse him, Walsh said. And Timm has seen more double teams. To counter that, the Warriors have utilized quicker passes, developed more complex route combinations and motioned Timm all over, including the slot.
It all worked to perfection last Saturday in that win over John Jay-Cross River. Timm hauled in 12 catches for a career-high 241 yards and two touchdowns, and the senior also returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score and snagged an interception. Riccardi, after missing last season with a broken ankle, continued his torrid sophomore campaign with three rushing touchdowns. The tailback has scored 11 touchdowns in the Warriors’ last four games.
Their success, Walsh said, isn’t vindication.
“But it’s sort of a validation of our program,” he said. “It shows that we can succeed at higher levels.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4
Lourdes’ 7 p.m. qualifying-round game against Pearl River is one of nine football games on Friday’s schedule. Visit http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com throughout the night and follow the Journal Sports department on Twitter, @PJSports, for the latest news and scores throughout the night, as well as a video look at Lourdes’ practice this week.
Follow reporter A.J. Martelli on Twitter, @AJM_PoJoSports, for live updates from the 7 p.m. qualifying-round game between Arlington and Roy C. Ketcham in Freedom Plains.