When the Bishop Ireton Cardinals take the field Saturday against St. Christopher’s, they’ll be taking part in something no member of the 8-2 squad ever has: a Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association playoff game.
The Cardinals last enjoyed a postseason run in 2007, and this year’s team is just the private school’s third squad since 2000 to extend their regular season campaign. Fielding a team without playoff experience might seem like a disadvantage, but head coach Tony Verducci believes their desire for a title will balance the scales.
“We obviously — as a program — would like to get to the point where [we’ve] got guys that have played in the playoffs from year to year,” he said. “Since we don’t have that, the next best thing is to have guys that are truly hungry to create history.”
A nearly impeccable regular season earned Ireton the second seed in the tournament, meaning the Cardinals will play the VISAA Division I semifinal game at home. The team, rebounding from a 4-6 2010 campaign, opened the season with a seven-game win streak.
That blazing trail of success, forged by junior quarterback P.J. Zingler’s arm and the twin rushing threats of Moses Webb and Brandon Williams-Price, came to a screeching halt in late October. Ireton’s miscues and mistakes were enough for the Paul VI Panthers to eke out a victory against the Cardinals offensive machine.
They lost again a week later, falling to a 6-2 Potomac squad in miserable weather. Beset by injuries, Ireton had to rely on the run, making them vulnerable to a Panthers defense better suited for the conditions.
The pair of defeats cost the Cardinals their opportunity to enter the two-game postseason tournament as the top-seeded team.
But they ended the season on a high note, trumping St. Mary’s Ryken 48-0 in a game they could have easily sleepwalked through; they were already playoff bound.
“We treated the last week of the regular season like it was the first week of the playoffs,” Verducci said. “It’s just a matter of playing with that confidence that we had early in the year – that’s the hardest thing we had to get back as a group.”
The Cardinals will face the real thing at Fannon Field at 1 p.m. Saturday. Earning a chance at winning a state title will mean beating an 8-2 St. Christopher’s squad. Though the teams share identical regular season records, the Saints enter the annual tournament as the third seed.
MaxPreps, a high school athletics website run by CBS Sports, ranks the Cardinals just ahead of the Saints in Virginia. By its math, Ireton is the No. 93 team statewide while their Richmond rivals are ranked No. 133.
The two teams have not met on the field since 2009, when Ireton trumped St. Christopher’s. A year earlier, their roles were reversed, with the Saints celebrating victory against the Cardinals.
Much will depend on the relative health of either squad after a grueling regular season. Cardinal wide receiver Malcolm Westbrook, one of Zingler’s favorite targets, did not play in either of Ireton’s losses because of an injury, though he returned with a limited capacity against St. Mary’s Ryken.
Webb, who has racked up 252 rushing and 411 receiving yards this season, also was sidelined during the loss to Potomac. He’s not a scratch yet, but Verducci remains concerned about his health heading into the playoffs.
Zingler, too, is rebounding from an injury he suffered during the rough-and-tumble Potomac game, though he’s recovered and is expected to play.
They will work with what they have available, Verducci said. The coaching staff has made it their mission to impress the notion that without a win against St. Christopher’s, there’s no next week.
“What we’ve done up until this point, other than from a confidence-building standpoint, will have no bearing on our preparation and play on Saturday,” Verducci said. “It’s just truly about understanding whoever scores the most points gets to play another week, and we want to be that team. We desperately want to be that team.”
With a win, the Cardinals will face either top-seeded Liberty Christian Academy or fourth-seed Flint Hill for the VISAA DI championship game in Richmond.