High flying Cardinals trounce Saints in crosstown rivalry game

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High flying Cardinals trounce Saints in crosstown rivalry game
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By Jim McElhatton [Photo/Jim McElhatton]

Four years ago, then-freshman Drew Smith thought about trying out for Bishop Ireton’s football team even though he had never played the sport except at recess and in backyard neighborhood games.

While he considered playing soccer, Smith decided to take a shot at football, if only to satisfy his curiosity about whether he actually could make the team. Fortunately for Ireton, he did.

Through five games this season, Smith is ranked second among all receivers in the D.C. area with eight touchdowns and more than 500 receiving yards.

The senior put up 165 yards against St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes on Saturday, leading the visiting Cardinals over the Saints by a final score of 41-17. The win puts their record at 4-1 this year following two consecutive losing seasons.

The week before Saturday’s drubbing of St. Stephen’s, Ireton beat Episcopal 26-24 after losing to the Maroon in each of the previous two years.

“The line did a great job all day giving [quarterback] Joe [Dickinson] time to deliver the ball and time for the receivers to get in their routes and get deep,” Smith said after the win over the Saints.

The Cardinals held a big lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Saints scored a quick touchdown to make it 35-17. One of the Saints coaches seemed to be getting through to the players as he yelled, “C’mon, plenty of football left.”

With Ireton facing a third down situation with six yards to go, the Saints played with heightened urgency. There seemed to be a hint of momentum shift in favor of the home team.

That’s when Smith ruined any hopes of a storybook comeback for the Saints’ homecoming game. He slipped past the Saints’ secondary, sprinted along the right sideline and caught a long pass from Dickinson, which effectively put the game out of reach.

“I think the first thing to say is that we know they’re a good team,” Ireton coach Tony Verducci said of the Saints after the game. “We also know they play a lot of guys on both sides of the ball. And so we felt that coming in, the fresh legs of guys like Drew Smith, Sam Smith and Ryan Verducci really would make a difference as the game went on.

“And I think that’s what you saw in the second half. The quality of our depth on both sides of the ball and the offensive and defensive lines were just outstanding.”

What’s more, the Cardinals were without defensive leader Josh Ammon, who injured his foot against Episcopal. Verducci said he’ll be back soon, but coaches decided to rest him out of an abundance of caution.

“Bernie Hayes took all the reps in practice this week and when we found out Josh couldn’t play, it was next man up,” Verducci said.

At practice a few days earlier, Ammon said this year’s Cardinals team “has the right winning mentality.”

“We have a sense of togetherness and I think we’ve done a good job of turning it around from last season,” he said.

Dickinson is a new addition to the team. He played last year in El Paso, Texas, but transferred in the spring when his father, who is in the military, moved to the Washington area. He’s one of only two quarterbacks in the area to pass for more than 1,200 yards so far this season.

“It’s been really everything I could ask for,” Dickinson said after practice. “During the offseason, I just kind of dreamt of having a winning season.”

Another transfer to the team is David Cooper, who kicked a 42-yard field goal early in the season. He, too, ended up at Ireton because of his father’s military service.

Allan Kaupinen, president of the Alexandria Sportsmen’s Club, whose son, Wes, was a sophomore running back on the Cardinals 1993 championship team, said the additions of Dickinson and Cooper are part of a long running tradition at Ireton.

It seems like there’s a newly arrived athlete in one sport or another just about every year who transferred because of a parent’s military service, he said.
For his part, Smith believes the team’s success is the result of a lot of hard work in practice and conditioning, as well as a culture where teammates encourage each other.

But Smith’s four-year transformation from backyard touch football player to one of the area’s top receivers offers should offer encouragement to anyone on the fence about getting involved in a sport. While backyard success may not often translate to varsity stardom — every once in a while, with enough work, it does.

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