Crusaders’ 2017 campaign one of their finest in history

RUNNING HARD — Steubenville Catholic Central’s Justin Hartzell rushes by Madonna on Oct. 19. (Photo by Michael D. McElwain)

STEUBENVILLE — Back in early August, Steve Daley liked what he saw when he looked at his 2017 Catholic Central football Crusaders.

At the time, Daley just wished he saw a few more players wearing the Royal Blue and Gold. The numbers, obviously, didn’t change and Central opened its season with 26 names on the roster. That number fluctuated some during the campaign due to injuries.

“Coming into the season, there were a lot of questions,” Daley said. “There were people saying the program was down and on its way out. There were people talking about our low numbers and wondering if we would be able to finish the season.”

Despite issues with quantity, Daley and company managed to put together a high quality season. Consider the following:

¯ Central finished the regular season with a 7-3 record, knocking off Wheeling Central, Warren JFK (Ohio’s defending Division VII champion) along with Madonna, which was unbeaten at the time.

¯ The Crusaders earned the seventh seed in the Division VI, Region 23 playoffs and were in the hunt for a home playoff game up until Week 10.

¯ Central’s offense rushed for a school record 3,064 yards. That total exceeded the 2,967 yards posted by the 2005 CCHS club in 15 games.

¯ The per game rushing average of 278.5 yards is the second best in school history. The 1945 team owns the record of 295.3 yards per outing.

¯ The Crusader offense averaged 406.1 yards per game, second only to the 2015 team’s 413.5 showing.

¯ Central scored a total of 422 points. The school record is 482, set in 2013. The point average per game was 38.4, also second to the 2013 squad.

¯ The offense finished with 4,467 yards, which also is second best. The 2005 CCHS club finished with 4,548 yards.

¯ The playoff berth was Central’s first since 2013. In the past six seasons, the Crusaders have finished with records at or above .500. They were 6-5 in 2012, 9-3 in 2013, 6-4 in 2014, 6-4 in 2014 and 5-5 in 2016.

“We had times that were challenging” Daley said. “There were times when we were banged up at the midpoint of the year. At some practices, we only had 20 guys dressed. We couldn’t field a scout team, so we had coaches filling in. There definitely were some challenges. To accomplish what we did says something very positive about our kids.

“We put Courage, Character, Heart and Spirit on our T-shirts this year. That’s what our school stands for, and it’s been a motto since coach Ken Mannie developed it. I felt we had gotten away from it a little. I know coach (Rich) Wilinski started bringing it back before he retired. I knew going into the season I wanted to put it right on our T-shirts. That’s our message. It doesn’t matter what our numbers are; this is what we are going to represent, and I thought our kids did a great job of representing that motto.”

When discussing Central’s six-year wave of success, Daley noted the Crusaders have “some consistency going right now overall within the program.”

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we are playing some very good football,” he said. “We’re still working on bringing our defense along. That is something we will continue to bring along and something we will work on in the offseason to improve.

“Overall, I believe the kids are buying into what it is we do. They believe in what we do, and that’s gone a long way to help with what we have produced.”

Seven seniors (Amin Butler, Kevin Cuervo, Geno DiBiase, David Miller, Vince Oliver Jr., Jah Sawyer and Levi Thompson) wore their Central uniforms for the final time in the heartbreaking 44-40, Region 23 quarterfinal loss to Chillicothe Southeastern.

“They weren’t a big group from a numbers standpoint, but they were a very talented group that brought us along and continued to carry on our tradition,” Daley said. “From the start of the season, they had a goal that we would be in Week 11. They got us there, they led us there.

“For the most part, I think they set an example for the classes coming behind them. They worked hard and they definitely will be missed.”

Daley feels Central has a “solid group” returning for next season. That group is led by 10 juniors, including tailback Craig Smith, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and quarterback Justin Hartzell, who threw for more than 1,000 yards and just missed adding another 1,000 on the ground.

Other members of that class are Noah Fayak, Anthony Fallon, Matt Bell, Matt Kilonsky, Dom Argentine, Alec Constantini, Jordan Maul and Jacob Stoll. Fayak and Fallon both missed considerable playing time because of injuries. Bell, Argentine, Maul and Stoll all had solid seasons on the defensive side of the ball.

“The guys coming back are very experienced and talented,” Daley said. “And remember, even our younger kids got a ton of playing experience, too. Each kid that dressed in this locker room contributed to our success in some way. They received valuable varsity experience, and they weren’t always going against the No. 2s from the other teams. They got into some tough situations.”

From a numbers standpoint, Daley said Central’s roster size should stay the same since they’re hoping to retain all the eighth graders who played this year.

“At the same time, there are a few bodies within the building who can help us,” he said. “I’ve talked to our players about talking with those guys and encouraging them to join us. Maybe a little peer pressure can be applied. I just know there are a handful of guys walking the hallways here that can help and can contribute to our program.”

Looking back at the Southeastern game, Daley said the loss doesn’t tarnish in any way the season they had or the kids they had.”

“It also doesn’t change the kids we had” he said. “They are great kids. That’s just the way it came down.”

Central was 1:24 away from knocking off Southeastern, the No. 2 seed in Region 23, after its defense delivered a huge stop on 4th-and-1. On its first offensive play, the Crusaders lined up in a shotgun formation. SE’s Carson Stauffer forced a fumble, the Panthers recovering.

Four snaps later, the hosts scored the game-winning touchdown.

“There are three things that I really subscribe to — stick to what you believe in, take responsibility and own things, and God has a plan and we don’t know that plan may be,” Daley said when reflecting on the playoff game. “With 1:24 to go, they had one timeout left, and I really believed kneeling was not an option. Had we done it, they would be left with time on the clock.

“We would have to punt from deep in our own territory to a returner who had taken a kick back for a touchdown earlier in the game. If we took a safety, we still would have to punt to that player.

“We had come up with a fourth down stop but previously we struggled defensively. My thought was we needed a first down. I stuck to what I believed in. We set a school record for rushing yardage this year. It’s what we had been successful with all year and was what we were successful with that night.”

Further, Daley pointed out he takes responsibility.

“I never, ever blame one of my players for anything,” he said. “There were a hundred things that happened in that game that could have changed the outcome of the situation we were in at that time. I’m the top guy, the leader and it rolls down from me.

“I take responsibility. I think that’s part of what’s wrong with our country today — people don’t take responsibility. Maybe that’s a lesson to our kids. You stand up and take responsibility.”

Daley gave a hats off to Stauffer for making a great play.

“He’s a great player for them and on that particular play, he made a great play,” Daley said. “I don’t know why. You can pray over it, you can think over it, but that’s the way things played out for us.”