By Chris Teale (Photo/Joe Simpson)
At the start of the first football practice session of the new season last week, one Bishop Ireton player brought a photograph of the Benedictine College Preparatory players kissing the Virginia Independent Schools Athletics Association championship trophy last fall.
The Cardinals lost 26-0 to the Cadets in the 2014 state final, and are using the defeat as an added incentive ahead of the 2015 campaign, which begins in a matter of weeks.
“I think that says it all,” said Ireton head coach Tony Verducci. “I don’t think that they need to be reminded; I think they brought that [photograph] just as a motivation to understand what their goal includes this year.”
This year, the Cardinals feature around 20 returning seniors on their roster, after a 2014 season in which they finished 8-4 overall. Of those, Verducci says his team has eight returning starters on defense and six on offense, and that continuity should help Ireton as the team looks to navigate its way to another postseason appearance.
But there still are some big shoes for the team to fill, most notably on offense as quarterback Joe Dickinson and star wide receiver Andrew Smith both graduated after leading the league in many offensive categories in the 2014 season. Add in the loss of Josh Ammon, a senior who contributed at tight end as well as being a force at linebacker, and the Cardinals have some needs to address. Verducci believes they can do just that, especially as the competition for starting jobs heats up.
“We’re just feeding off the energy that [returning players] bring in competing and trying to get better every day in practice,” he said. “I think offensively, we look at what Andrew did last year and we say, ‘We’re not looking for Andrew 2.0.’ I think that we’d like to be a little bit more balanced, because we feel like we have greater depth across the front. With Perris Jones coming back at running back, we expect that we’re going to be a better team in terms of running the football.”
Coming into this year on the back of a playoff run means the Cardinals should expect to be under additional pressure, as opponents will likely raise their games in pursuit of a victory against the state finalists. But Verducci said his players know what to expect when they face other teams, and are determined to flourish under that pressure.
“The first thing I think you do is embrace that,” he said. “We’ve already talked about it as a staff. We know we’re not going to sneak up on anybody, and we know that whether it’s a team that we defeated last year, they want to even the score this year, or whether it’s a team that we came up short against last year, Benedictine is a prime example from the two occasions that we played against them.
“We know the kind of effort we’re going to give to prepare for that game is going to be the kind of effort that all our opponents prepare to play against us. We really talk about having big-picture goals but preparing day-to-day and, once we get into the season, week-to-week.”
With that in mind, Verducci and his staff worked in late spring with a strength and conditioning professional to design a program for the team, which the coaches oversaw during the summer. He believes that effort will pay off in the form of a stronger and more athletic team, something that should stand them in good stead for a gruelling 10-game regular season even before any playoff run.
Even with all their hard work in the offseason and the work that is set to come before school starts, Verducci pointed to the team’s first regular season game on September 4 at Nansemond Suffolk Academy in Suffolk, Va. as crucial, since getting the first win can set the tone for a successful season.
“I think you always look at that first game of the year and when you’re a program that has had recent success but doesn’t have long-term,” he said. “The good news is we have guys who know what it felt like to get to that level. The bad news is we don’t have a ton of guys who’ve got years of experience doing it. So I think it’s just a matter of preparing for that first game, trying to get that first win under your belt and then take it from there.”