Defense leaves opponents black and blue
By KEVIN DEVANEY JR.
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: November 13, 2007)
Ryan Hunt was asked to step back for a moment and describe what the Stepinac football team's defense would look like to an outsider. The junior linebacker summed it up in one word.
"Scary," Hunt said. "In every way, just scary."
The Crusaders' defense has been called many things this season: cocky, arrogant, brash. The Crusaders strut in and out of the huddle, talk trash and hit hard. And they don't mind if opponents dislike them, either.
In fact, they prefer it.
"That's the way we are all the time," linebacker Blake Rzemieniewski said. "We feel like we've earned it."
Stepinac sure has. The fourth-seeded Crusaders (8-2) ride a seven-game winning streak into Sunday's CHSFL AA Division championship game against Christ the King. It is their first final appearance in six years, and they haven't won a title since 1997. They had won only four games in each of the last four seasons.
It's easy to pinpoint when this season turned around from its shaky 1-2 start: Sept. 28 vs. Nazareth, when star running back Rashaad Slowley returned from an ankle sprain he had suffered on the third play of the season. Since then, Slowley has rushed for 1,184 yards and 19 touchdowns in seven games.
But Stepinac could also look at that 45-0 rout of Nazareth as the turning point for its defense. During the winning streak, the Crusaders have allowed just 61 points, an average of 8.7 per game, while scoring 45 or more five times.
"Obviously, Rashaad made a big difference," said Stepinac coach Mike O'Donnell, who's in his 20th season. "To have any shot to beat us, you have to stop him. ... But the defense has been unbelievable. We've really taken teams out of their game plans. Our guys just love to hit people. It's fun to just watch them all run around the field and fight to make tackles."
Tackles, actually, are what most teams look for. Stepinac is a little different.
"We look to attack whoever is carrying the ball," Rzemieniewski said. "We do it as a team, too. Whoever has the ball, we're looking to hit them as hard as we possibly can."
The defense is coming off one of its guttiest performances of the season in Saturday's 19-14 win over Fordham Prep in the CHSFL semifinals.
Fordham Prep took a 14-0 lead, then was held scoreless over the final 32 minutes. Rzemieniewski recovered a fumble with 3:14 left to set up the go-ahead touchdown, and the defense stopped the Rams at the Stepinac 9 in the closing seconds.
What makes Stepinac's defense even scarier is how young it is. Rzemieniewski, a Yonkers resident who has two interceptions and four fumble recoveries, and Hunt, the team leader in tackles with 89, are both juniors. The other linebackers, Anthony Mateo and Seamus Henderson, are seniors.
The defensive line - ends Anton Rukaj and Anthony Scarnati, and tackles Josh Powell and Vinny Cretara - are all graduating. But the entire secondary and a host of reserves will return.
Maurice Easterling, a sophomore safety from Yonkers, is a rising star who likely will assume the starting running-back job. Junior cornerbacks Brian Boulhosa, the team leader with six interceptions, and William McCaffery will be back alongside him.
If the Crusaders beat underdog Christ the King (4-6), it's likely they will be bumped up to the more prestigious AAA Division next season, especially after the junior varsity went 8-1. That means Stepinac will be matched up against the likes of St. Anthony's, Mount St. Michael and Monsignor Farrell.
Judging by this group, though, it won't make a difference.
"We'll just go out and continue what we started," Hunt said, a Yonkers resident. "We feel that we can match up with any team in the CHSFL. Moving up won't matter to us at all."