Saturday, September 22, 2007

They Don't Come to Play, They Come to Win

This is shaping up to be another vintage year for Ohio high school football, and the team in the white helmets and jerseys pictured to the left is a big part of the reason why.

That's Youngstown's own Cardinal Mooney, a Division IV team that no Division I team in their right mind wants to tangle with. I'm an Archbishop Hoban fan, so I selected this picture from their game with Mooney as the one that I'd include with this post. That's because it shows the Knights shutting down #5 Taylor Hill and fighting off the block of #9 Michael Zordich.

Unfortunately, events like those depicted in this photo didn't happen much that night, as Mooney defeated Hoban 34-0, largely as a result of the contributions of Messrs. Hill and Zordich and their backfield mate, QB Dan McCarthy.

But that's no reflection on the Knights -- who've played a brutal schedule to open the season -- just like it was no reflection on the then #10 ranked team in the country, Gateway (Pa), when Mooney throttled them 27-6 a week earlier, and just like it was no reflection on Mentor, the #1 team in the Plain Dealer Top 25, when they fell to the Cardinals 21-10 in their season opener.

How good is Mooney? The three guys who played in the backfield the night I saw them are all going to high level Division I programs. Dan McCarthy is following his brother Kyle to Notre Dame, Taylor Hill is heading to Oklahoma, and Michael Zordich is following his dad's footsteps (his father is former Philadelphia Eagles safety Mike Zordich) and heading to Penn State.

The scariest thing is that as outstanding as these three guys are, I'm told that none of them is the team's best player. That honor apparently goes to RB/LB Brandon Beachum, who's also Penn State bound.

I've seen a fair amount of high school football over the years, and have watched some pretty impressive squads -- including the magnificent St. Ignatius teams of the early 1990s, and I've got to say that Mooney is a worthy successor to them.

Cardinal Mooney is getting noticed nationally as well. They were 25th in the nation in USA Today's preseason poll, and are ranked 11th in its most recent poll. Max Preps ranks them even higher, anointing the Cardinals as the nation's 5th best team.

If you look at the national two polls, you'll see that St. Xavier from Cincinnati tops the Max Preps poll and ranks second in the USA Today poll. Hat's off to St. X, but with all due respect, Cardinal Mooney's the better story. Nobody's surprised when an elite Jesuit prep school turns out a powerhouse football team, but when a small diocesan school from the most beaten down city in a beaten down state does it, and does it year after year, that's news. It's the same reason why Glenville's football miracle is such a great story. There's just something about a team from the wrong side of the tracks that kicks ass and takes names that makes you want to stand up and cheer -- okay, not when it's your team's ass that gets kicked, but you know what I mean.

My guess is that although they play a brutal schedule that includes such formidable foes as Cleveland's own Benedictine and Bishop Watterson from Columbus, the Cardinals will cruise into the playoffs. But their path to a state title may not be as easy as it was last season. Realignment has dropped mighty Steubenville from Division III to Division IV, and a Mooney v. Steubenville match-up could be looming on the horizon. If you get tickets to that one, I'll trade you tickets to any two Browns games for them.

Now I'm not naive about how football talent gets to places like Mooney, but you know what? I don't really care very much either. Youngstown is a place that needs something to cheer about, and Mooney's success in recent years has its fans not only cheering, but positively strutting. When I watched Mooney play Hoban, I saw Mooney fans wearing t-shirts that said "Cardinal Mooney" on the front and the slogan "We didn't come to play, we came to win" on the back.

I've seen them play, and you can take that slogan to the bank.

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