As coach of national power Cincinnati St. Xavier, it isn't often that Steve Specht finds his team as an underdog. Yet when St. X plays host to Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep on Saturday afternoon, that's exactly what it will be.
Don Bosco (0-0) is ranked No. 3 in the RivalsHigh 100; the Bombers (2-1) are 24th. Between them, Bosco (10) and St. Xavier (two) have won 12 state championships.
"It's interesting that we go into this game as the underdog," said Specht, whose team has won two in a row since an opening-week loss to Cincinnati Colerain. "They're ranked in the top five nationally in a lot of polls. They have to come here, which is good for us. But we're going to find out where we are this week. I think we've been battle-tested."
Since the loss to Colerain on Aug. 22, St. Xavier has beaten Prattville (Ala.) High and Indianapolis Cathedral, and "I think all three of those teams could win their state titles," Specht said.
Bosco, the two-time defending New Jersey Non-Public Group 4 state champ, takes a 24-game winning streak into its season-opener.
"We had three scrimmages and I think they all went well, but it's really hard to simulate the intensity and the speed of a game, especially with teams of that caliber," said Nunzio Campanile, Bosco's athletic director and offensive coordinator. "But we scrimmaged DeMatha (from Hyattsville, Md.,) and Dunbar down in Baltimore, and I think that was a good test for us. … I think we've done the best we can to challenge ourselves as much as possible in the preseason, but it's hard to simulate that game speed."
The Ironmen return their three main skill-position players from last year's team: quarterback Brett Knief, who has committed to North Carolina for baseball, and tailbacks Dillon Romain and Tony Jones, a junior who already holds an offer from Boston College.
"Obviously, our three best offensive weapons are back, and that's a huge advantage for us," Campanile said. "We want to have three tailbacks on the field at one time, and we think that Tony, Dillon and Brett all give us that feature. We want to create a situation where nobody knows where the ball is going on any given play.
"Their greatest strength, no matter what they do physically, is that they're so unselfish. They play for each other; they don't care who gets the job done as long as we get it done."
The teams exchanged videotapes, and Specht said he feels relatively "comfortable" with his defense "simply because they brought a bunch of guys back from their team last year and we don't think they're going to change a whole lot."
Bosco also features two talented wide receivers in senior Trace McDermott and junior Jimmy Clark, as well as tight end Ryan Cobb.
"The thing that jumps out at you is no fat guys," Specht said of the Ironmen. "Their offensive line, you're looking at guys 260, 255, but they're long and lean and they're athletic. They look like guys that we put on defense because they can run so well. They're physically a great-looking team."
St. Xavier counters with quarterback Ryan Massa, who is coming off offseason foot surgery, and wide receivers Andrew Vehr and Drew Grombala. Senior running back Conner Early suffered a hip pointer last week and is a "question mark right now," Specht said.
Campanile says the teams are similar and that he is especially impressed with the St. Xavier defense.
"They're a tremendous defensive team," he said. "I think there are a lot of similarities between their program and ours, as far as the style of play. I think they have a lot of tough, hard-nosed kids on their team, and we've always considered ourselves to be in that same mold. They're a great defensive team; they're very well-coached."
Things won't get any easier for Bosco, which next week plays host to Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy, then visits No. 4 Concord (Calif.) De La Salle for a nationally televised ESPN game on Sept. 27.
"I think the kids are really excited about it; it's a great honor," Campanile said.
Game of the Week: No. 3 Don Bosco Iron Men vs No. 24 St. Xavier Bombers
KEY TO THE GAME: St. Xavier Bombers
With Connor Early a question mark at running back, the Bombers could be without their leading rusher. Bosco's defense allowed the opponent to score in double-digits in just four of its 12 games in 2007. Specht said he was especially impressed with the Ironmen's defense, and the key to any game is the ability to run the football.
KEY TO THE GAME: Don Bosco Iron Men
The Ironmen start three new players in the secondary, so if the St. Xavier offensive line can give Ryan Massa some protection, he might be able to take advantage of some inexperience by throwing to Andrew Vehr and Drew Grombala for a few big plays.
Note: Adapting to Game Speed
While St. Xavier already has played three games, this will be the season-opener for Bosco. It remains to be seen how the Ironmen will perform under game conditions for the first time since winning the state title against Jersey City St. Peter's Prep last December at Giants Stadium.