Preseason prognosis: discouraging . . . In-season performance: dominant . . . Postseason pedigree: dynastic.
Welcome to St. Anthony's football and the rebuilding year that wasn't.
The Friars seemed down for the count in September. Charlie Raffa, their starting quarterback, was so hurt, there was talk he'd sit out a few games. Most of last year's championship team was gone, replaced, instead with untested call-ups and bench-riders. They were plagued by injury, marked by inexperience, but still very, very talented. The question was whether talent would be enough.
Before the season, coach Rich Reichert was guardedly optimistic. "It's probably the first year in a long time we don't have experienced players coming back," he said in September. "I think we have to be more patient with this group. I have to hope they play well early. But you never know because with no game experience, it's hard to know how they'll react."
Bookend those remarks with the ones he made in early November, after St. Anthony's beat Iona Prep, 41-23 to take the ''AAA'' crown for the ninth time in 10 years and complete only the fourth undefeated season in team history.
"The undefeated part, I really didn't see that coming," Reichert said. "We got better as the year went on . . . We played a lot of seniors last year and then we had two of our big returning guys who got hurt and didn't play the whole season. Now we got the experience."
They also have the title.
It wasn't enough that St. Anthony's beat the competition this year. The Friars played with a sense of purpose. St. Anthony's won its first game by 11 points, its next by 13. By Weeks 3 and 4, the margins were closer to 20 points. Only Iona Prep came close in Week 8, and even then, the Friars won by eight.
The negative talk "definitely gave us more of a push and get this win," wide receiver Brian Kensil said. "We're not in reload mode, we're just back . . . A lot of people didn't think so, but we definitely wanted to prove them wrong and show them what we got."
The Friars (11-0) defeated St. Joseph by the Sea, 42-8, in the quarterfinals and Fordham Prep, 39-14, in the semis.
Meanwhile that quarterback with all the questions, Raffa, continued to embody what St. Anthony's had been about all season. The possible liability with the injured shoulder turned out to be an absolute boon down the stretch; his QB rating, 199.02 using the NCAA formula, is the highest in the league, according to data compiled by the CHSAA. He finished with seven passing TDs and two more rushing in the three playoff games, and his gutsy 7-for-10, 255-yard passing performance in the title game all but guaranteed the title.
Tyler McLees anchored the second-best defense in the league, while well-balanced, effortlessly professional play by guys such as Kensil, Brian Sherlock and Mike Schillizzi did whatever Raffa couldn't on offense.
"No one expected us to be here right now," Raffa said. "It's my last time playing football, so I wanted to go out with a bang."
Mission impossible turned mission accomplished.