Stepinac shows mettle of a champion
By KEVIN DEVANEY JR.
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: November 19, 2007)
HEMPSTEAD - Stepinac took eight weeks of domination and rolled it into 48 championship minutes.
The Crusaders upended Christ the King 47-12 in the CHSFL AA Division final at Hofstra University's Shuart Stadium yesterday for their eighth straight victory and first title in 12 years.
And they did it by showcasing everything that turned what was once a floundering 1-2 team into a champion. They moved the ball effortlessly on the ground, hit for big plays through the air, were overpowering up front, and swarmed to the ball on defense for another lopsided victory.
"This game pretty much summed up our season," Crusaders coach Mike O'Donnell said. "We are so explosive. We go after people and can beat teams in a lot of different ways."
Stepinac's run over the last two months has been impressive. The Crusaders (9-2) have scored 45 points or more in six of their last eight games, and have won those games by a 32.1-point average.
Their closest game during that stretch was last week's comeback win over top-seeded Fordham Prep in the semifinals, where No. 4 Stepinac rallied from a 14-0 deficit to win 19-14.
Seventh-seeded Christ the King started its season 0-6, including a 43-14 loss to Fordham Prep, before rattling off four straight wins, highlighted by a pair of playoff upsets.
"We knew not to take them lightly," Stepinac running back Rashaad Slowley said. "They got here for the same reason we did: They won two playoff games. The reason they won was because their opponents took them lightly and got upset."
Any concern of that happening again was eliminated quickly.
Slowley led Stepinac to touchdowns on its first five possessions. The Mount Vernon native rushed for three first-quarter scores, two following interceptions by Crusaders safety Maurice Easterling.
"I don't think this group takes anything lightly," O'Donnell said. "I actually worry sometimes that they get overexcited. But they've won eight games in a row, and done it in a fashion where they take no prisoners."
Slowley finished with 126 yards on 22 carries, and Easterling had two carries for 80 yards.
In the second quarter, Easterling broke a 36-yard touchdown run to put the Crusaders ahead 28-6. Quarterback Joe Collins capped the offense's commanding first half with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Brian Boulhosa.
The defense took its turn in the spotlight in the third quarter.
On the first play of the half, Anthony Mateo recovered a fumble in the end zone for a score. On the Royals' next play from scrimmage, Blake Rzemieniewski returned an interception 28 yards for another.
It was Rzemieniewski's fourth defensive touchdown of the season and the seventh overall for Stepinac, which has an eye-popping 40 takeaways in 10 games.
"When we were 1-2, I didn't think we'd get to this point," said Easterling, a Yonkers resident. "I knew we were a good team. But to win eight games in a row like this is a great feeling."
Stepinac has never been a team lacking in confidence, which was evidenced by its postgame celebration.
After the Crusaders dumped the water cooler on O'Donnell in the closing seconds, white hats were handed out to the players and coaches with the words "Stepinac champions" emblazoned across the front.
"This team definitely has a little swagger to it," Mateo said. "We've been that way all year. We've got a confident group of running backs, defense and coaching staff."
Stepinac's season isn't done yet. It will face White Plains in the annual "Turkey Bowl" for city bragging rights Thursday at 10:30 a.m. at Parker Stadium. The Crusaders, who won last year's meeting 30-0, are attempting to become the first team in school history to win 10 games.
"That game has so much anticipation to it," Slowley said. "It might actually be just as important as this one. If we lose that game, our season will be a little disappointing."