Despite championship defeat, Bishop Ireton positive about football future

Despite championship defeat, Bishop Ireton positive about football future

By Chris Teale (Photo/Joe Simpson)

They fell short of victory in the state championship final, but Bishop Ireton’s football team believe that good times are ahead after a strong 2014 season in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association.

Having finished with a 1-9 record in 2012, the Cardinals have enjoyed an upturn in fortunes over the last two years, holding a 4-6 mark in 2013 and then finishing this season at 8-4. They reached the Division I final for the first time since 2007 as the No. 2 seed, but lost 23-7 to No. 1 Benedictine High School.

“We began back in June, ending all our workouts, each of our 7-on-7 competitions, we ended every session with the group getting together and saying, ‘Together’,” Ireton Head Coach Tony Verducci said. “I’m so incredibly proud of the fact that the boys embodied what it meant to play together. It wasn’t a slogan; it wasn’t anything other than a commitment to each other.”

Coming into the season on the back of a losing record, that unity was sure to be tested, but Verducci’s players were up to the task.

“I think we’ve always been competitive, even [in 2012] when we won one game,” he said. “We’ve always had guys that play hard for each other. Having 15 players who are seniors who for the most part have been together for the majority of the four years really develops that bond.

“I’m hopeful that it sets an example for our younger players that they can try to emulate, that if you work hard, whether it’s in calculus or English or football, you enhance the likelihood of success and you certainly enhance the experience.”

Perhaps the stiffest task the Cardinals faced this season was two consecutive games against Pope John Paul the Great High School, first away in their final match of the regular season then at home in the playoffs. The Cardinals lost 35-28 away, but then came roaring back to shut out the Wolves 26-0.

“What I was most impressed about with that is that our players acknowledged that they weren’t emotionally prepared to play the first game,” he said. “It wasn’t any disrespect to Pope John Paul the Great, it was more accepting personal responsibility for the fact that we believed we were the better team and that we didn’t demonstrate it in the last game of the regular season.

“To be able to make a couple of field goals, to be able to shut them out and to score touchdowns as well was in a lot of ways the epitome of what we strove to achieve as a team.”

Offensively, the Cardinals were indebted to the work of senior quarterback Joe Dickinson, who threw for a total of 2,629 yards. A transfer from Texas, he forged instant connections with his wide receivers, with Andrew Smith’s 1,022 receiving yards leading the league.

On defense, linebackers Josh Ammon and Nigel Bullard led the way with more than 100 tackles apiece, with a 26-24 win over Episcopal High School the highlight.

“I think it’s been outstanding,” Verducci said. “If you look at it, we began the year very young on defense, and when your defense knows your offense can score points, I think it’s easier for them to play at a comfort level.

“As the year went on, I thought we got better and better on defense, and as our opponents got better and as Andrew Smith became a marked man, as Joe Dickinson’s talent was no longer under anybody’s radar, it was great because we knew that over the course of the game we knew that we were going to be able to score points.

“I would say Episcopal — no offense to Benedictine — was as talented as anybody we played all year. Our defense being able to hang on over the course of the final couple of possessions and create turnovers against Episcopal solidified their belief that they were going to be a good defense.”

The Cardinals came up against Benedictine in the championship game, and the 23-7 loss owed much to a stellar Cadets defense, having been tied 7-7 at halftime.

“It wasn’t anything that we weren’t prepared for, it wasn’t anything that we didn’t do in terms of effort, we just didn’t just make enough plays and I think you have to tip your hat to Benedictine because they certainly had something to do with that,” Verducci said. “A couple of minutes into the fourth quarter, we’re only trailing 10-7 and I felt like we all believed we would find a way to at least tie the score if not put us ahead.

“We had three turnovers in the game, two of which directly led to Benedictine touchdowns, and we really struggled to get drives together, having been a team that’s been able to score from nearly anywhere on the field all year long.”

With 15 seniors graduating this year, the onus now is on the underclassmen to continue their strong work. For Verducci, the building of a high school football dynasty continues.

“It was, by any measure, a wonderfully successful season,” he said. “It’s one we hope will be the beginning of more regular success moving forward. We don’t want to think of the loss in the championship game as an end of this season, we want to think of it as the beginning of an era of continued competitive success.”