NEW ROCHELLE – When Joe Spagnolo accepted the head coaching job at Iona Prep in January, it intensified the Sept. 17 game against Stepinac, even with the game still months away.
Neither side has ever needed added incentive in their long rivalry, but Spagnolo’s departure from Stepinac to become the Gaels’ head coach has added some.
The teams moved a step closer to their anticipated clash when the CHSFL opened preseason camp Monday, yet players from both sides seemed more focused on themselves rather then the renewal of their rivalry.
“I don’t even think about that,” Stepinac junior Trill Williams said. “I just think about our first game against Cornwall. We just think about it one game at a time.”
That is probably a simpler task for the Crusaders, the two-time defending CHSFL AAA champs. They were 24-1 the last two seasons with Spagnolo as the offensive coordinator. They boast a varsity roster of 65, including a handful of returning impact players like Williams and seniors DeVante Reid, Antonio Giannico, Devonte Myles and Gene Brown, among others.
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Spagnolo opened his first official practice at Iona Prep with his own strong core of returners, including players who were thrust into key roles last season due to a rash of injuries. The team only expects to start six seniors from a modest-sized class, highlighted by quarterback Mike Apostolopoulos, running backs/linebackers Rodney Samson Jr. and Lamont McGriff as well as lineman Josh McGugins. The team also returns nine players who played as sophomores; their experience will be vital.
The varsity numbers dipped into the low 30s last year, but the Gaels now have 45 on varsity after the coaches and returners recruited players back onto the field.
“I’m really excited where we are this year,” junior Johnryan Freeman said. “We hit the ground running with high intensity. We got a lot done very quickly. At this point, we have in most of what we’re doing, so a lot of it is fine-tuning and getting things game-ready for Week 1.”
Just like last year, being game-ready means preparing for the two toughest challenges on their schedule. Iona Prep will travel to Brunswick and then host Stepinac in its non-league games. Those two opponents left the Gaels depleted last year and they never recovered. Spagnolo hopes to better navigate the tough early schedule by being prepared for the physical and mental test — and, yes, by having some injury luck.
“We break our season down into three seasons: the non-league games, the regular season and the playoffs,” he added. “If we can get out of there with some confidence and playing well, the rest of the season should be positive.”
Stepinac needs no such shot of confidence. The Crusaders have dominated the CHSFL with their speed and athleticism the last two seasons and they don’t expect anything less now.
The offense must prove it can replace Tyquell Fields at quarterback and rebuild the line. The ongoing quarterback competition between juniors Michael Nicasio and Tyler Winston will determine who is tasked with finding touches for Giannico, Williams and Sleepy Hollow transfer Jonathan Gomez in the backfield and Reid and fellow seniors Brandon Gasparre and Tyger Winston.
“We’re definitely ready,” said Myles, a three-year starting defensive back. “It’s just work now. There’s nothing more to it. Everybody is working hard as a team.”
The Gaels appeared to operate with equal rhythm on Monday afternoon despite a complete turnover of the coaching staff. To get ready, Spagnolo hosted a quarterback camp, a team camp and summer workouts in addition to installing offensive plays for passing scrimmages.
Knowing the challenge ahead better than anyone, he wasn’t quite content. Not yet, anyway.
“I think we had a really good, productive summer,” Spagnolo said. “From a familiarity standpoint we took care of a lot before we walking in today, but we still have a long way to go.”