Not much will have changed for either side since last week’s matchup: the Eagles, short-handed without injured quarterback Nick Johns and wide receiver Jabari Greenwood in the loss, don’t expect to have either player back this week.
“It definitely affects us a lot [not having Johns and Greenwood],” said Gonzaga running back Robbie Walker. “But luckily, from day one our coaches have given us a ‘next-man-up’ attitude. . . but it definitely hurts a lot because Nick has a great arm. He was really training hard, working hard with all the guys on all the routes. It was great to have him in there. And Jabarai, he always makes plays for our team.”
With the same personnel expected for the Eagles (6-4, 4-2), the Cadets (8-2, 5-1 WCAC) see no reason to change much from last week’s win over then-No. 17 Gonzaga, but an effort St. John’s feels it can improve on this weekend.
“We feel like we could’ve blown them out. We missed a lot of tackles,” said Cadets’ senior cornerback Omar Truitt. “That’s what made them have long drives. So we understand that if we make our tackles and fix a few things, we’ll be good.”
Tweaking is all Gonzaga feels it has to do, too, said Walker, who added his team was not expecting to lose to its longtime rival last week, and “doesn’t want to let it happen again.”
“I give [St. John’s] all the credit for last week. They’re a great team,” Walker said. “We don’t have a whole lot to say as a team. We feel like it was minor mistakes on our part last week, and this week we’re learning from those mistakes, go into the game and kill them quietly.”
Walker said penalties in key situations cost the Eagles last week, something they’ll hope to fix this week when the teams take the field at Maryland’s Byrd Stadium. Last week, the teams played in front of more than 4,000 spectators at Blair, and they’re hoping for a similar turnout Sunday when a berth in the WCAC finals against DeMatha or Good Counsel is on the line.
“St. John’s versus Gonzaga game is already the biggest rivalry in the country, so this should be another packed crowd with more people coming,” Truitt said. “I think we’ll come out even stronger knowing there’s fans there on our side. We already have momentum. We beat them once, why can’t we beat them again? We can’t wait.”
The second half of Sunday’s semifinal double-header between top-ranked DeMatha and Good Counsel features two teams with a proud past. Despite an up-and-down regular season, Good Counsel still enters the postseason as the four-time defending WCAC champion. Meantime, DeMatha sits as the undisputed favorite to win its first title since 2008 after sweeping through regular-season conference play.
But it’s this same decorated recent history that grants both teams the wisdom to know that come playoff time, a short memory often serves teams best.
“It’s a new season. We need to go undefeated this week and then go undefeated next week,” DeMatha running back Taiwan Deal. “As seniors, this is our last guaranteed game, so we’ve got to focus on what’s in front of us and stay hungry.”
“The players we had on those past championship teams, a lot of them are gone, so the younger guys, and even the older guys, aren’t focused on the past,” Good Counsel lineman Sam Mustipher said. “The adversity we’ve faced this year has made us all grow up, so I feel like our approach is different this time.”
The goal remains the same, meaning the Falcons will look to eliminate the big plays that doomed them in a 21-0 loss to DeMatha earlier this season. The Stags displayed their firepower and balance by scoring on a 97-yard interception return and a 95-yard rush by Deal.
“Those were big for us, but it doesn’t always have to be a big play,” Deal said. “We just look to drive down the field and control the line of scrimmage. If we execute, everything will take care of itself.”
Back to counter DeMatha’s progression after missing the regular-season meeting are defensive linemen Jesse Aniebonam and Darius Fullwood, providing speed off the edges against the Stags’ high-powered rushing attack.
The winner will face either St. John’s or Gonzaga in the Nov. 16 championship, writing another chapter for rivals that have clashed in eight of the last nine WCAC tournaments.
“I could sit here and tell you it’ll come down to the passing game or the run game but it’s DeMatha and Good Counsel. It’s a rivalry,” Mustipher said. “It never comes down to what’s on paper. In these games, anything can happen and we’ll be ready to duke it out.”