By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School’s varsity football team kicked off the 2019-2020 season with a clean 32-0 sweep of Paul VI Catholic High School on Aug. 30, before falling to St. Christopher’s School 35-12 on Sept. 7.
Despite the inconsistent start, the Saints have high hopes for the season. Between promising new recruits and a tight knit group of 17 senior players, the team aims to improve on a 2018-2019 season that ended in a 5-5 record and failure to secure a place in the state playoffs.
The Saints players came into last season with a lot of talent but a lack of confidence, junior quarterback Tison Hill said. They surprised themselves with success early in the season, quickly leaping to 4-1 in their first five games.
That strong start last season was challenged by stiff competition in the Interstate Athletic Conference.
“We were 4-and-1 to start the season, got into league play and we play in a tough league,” Chip Phillips, associate athletic director for varsity football, said. “… We didn’t end the season the way we wanted to, but hopefully those bumps in the road will train these upperclassman and seniors to get through it.”
Even before the 2019-2020 season began, the players proved they had taken those bumps in the road in stride, Head Coach Bernard Joseph said. Summer workouts and conditioning sessions were unexpectedly packed with players. During coaching staff meetings, players weren’t goofing off in the locker room; they were out on the field running their own drills, Phillips said.
“I think this year’s team, we’re a closer team than we were last year,” Joseph said. “We had the most participation in our off-season conditioning and workouts. We had almost 20 guys coming in over the summer, which is huge for us. I think they understand the value of hard work and what it’ll do for them.”
The players have been putting in the work and, unlike last season, certainly aren’t lacking in confidence. Joseph and Phillips said they are intent on taking the season one game at a time, but when players were asked if they had a target painted on any teams in particular, several couldn’t help but namecheck Episcopal High School and Georgetown Prep.
“I feel like to be the best, you have to beat the best,” junior receiver Malcolm Johnson said.
If last season was a learning experience, this season is an opportunity to take those lessons and run with them, senior wide receiver Luke Fisher said.
“Last year, we realized that we had all the pieces and we were almost there,” Fisher said. “Coming into this year, we knew we had everything that we need to win all these football games, and we just need to come together as a team and believe that we can win and then win those games.”
At practice on Sept. 9, Joseph sat his players down to watch film of Saturday’s game in order to show them that all the mistakes and errors are “correctable,” Joseph said. His players took it to heart.
“I don’t see anybody stopping us; I see us stopping ourselves,” Hill said. “This past weekend, we stopped ourselves – a lot of missed assignments, mental errors, stuff we could improve on.”
Despite the loss, the Saints appear to have a solid team this year. A strong defensive line composed of veterans including senior linebacker Lamumba Howard and talented recruits including Blake Hiligh and Darius Wilson anchor a team that also has incredible speed and offensive coordination, Joseph said.
“This is the most speed I think we’ve ever had,” Joseph said. “We have two of the best defensive ends in the IAC and in the area and we’re pretty stout inside. I like our front guys this year. Especially defensively, I think they’re going to wreak havoc.”
The Saints are still adjusting to a significant gap in their offensive roster: senior running back Thomas “Tre” Boon has been out of commission since suffering an ACL tear in March during baseball season. Laron Stewart, a first year running back, has taken over, but Boon’s presence has been missed on and off the field.
“He’s a leader, an emotional leader, leads by example, and that’s a big loss for us and more than just on the field,” Joseph said.
Boon has been attending every practice and Phillips anticipates Boon will return to the field by mid-season.
Joseph said the team still hasn’t reached its potential, but his players’ willingness to learn, hardworking attitude and hunger for victory provide a solid foundation for growth.
“That’s what makes coaching them fun, is they’re hungry to win and not just to win for themselves,” Joseph said. “They want to win for St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, and that’s what makes it exciting.”
St. Stephen’s hasn’t been to the state playoffs since 2007 and Joseph has yet to go to states, although he’s had some close calls. Last season, the team ended sixth in the league, narrowly missing one of the top four spots necessary to qualify for the state playoffs. Joseph said he believes this team has the best chance of any Saints team in a long time of making it all the way.
This team, in particular, holds a special place in the head coach’s heart. Many of the seniors have been playing football together, in one form or another, since elementary school, and Joseph has been with them since the beginning.
“This senior class, my first year teaching here at the lower school, they were the little kids at the lower school who were in the end zone,” Joseph said.
To see this team, this group of players, go all the way to the state playoffs would mean the world to Joseph, he said.
“It would mean everything, to be honest with you, because it’s something that they want and they’ve been talking about and working towards since they were young,” Joseph said. “They talk about leaving a legacy here, and I think that would be awesome for them.”