Hard Work Trumps All At St. Edward

In recognition of the OHSAA’s decision to move the state football finals to Ohio Stadium, BuckeyeSports.com is running a series throughout the season profiling the top high school gridiron programs in the state and what makes each one unique.

For the Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward football team, nothing comes easy – except for perhaps the games themselves.

The Eagles demonstrated as much Aug. 31, putting a running clock on Maryland powerhouse Baltimore Gilman in the second half of a 38-7 victory to open the 2014 season. The Greyhounds have won 11 of the last 16 titles in the MIAA, Baltimore’s private school conference that often produces the best competition in a state that separates public and private schools.

St. Edward opened its season ranked fifth in the country in Scout.com’s listing of the 50 high school teams in the nation. They’ll face two other teams who are also ranked – No. 11 Cincinnati Moeller and No. 19 Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep – and they’ll likely see No. 36 Mentor at some point in the OHSAA Division I playoffs.

The schedule also includes Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy, a three-year-old school that was formed to compete at the national level and whose team is highlighted by West Virginia quarterback commit David Sills, and Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic, whose team is led by Jarrett Guarantano, the No. 10 quarterback in the class of 2016. On top of all that, St. Edward will also take on Ohio powers Cleveland Glenville, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.

“I always try to play schools like Glenville and Moeller and Ignatius, and I feel like we do play some of the best teams in the nation,” sixth-year head coach Rick Finotti told BuckeyeSports.com. “With the out-of-state games, a lot of us all share the same problems. We’re private Catholic schools, and we need games.”

The Eagles are absolutely loaded with talent, boasting a handful of Division I commits and others that have Division I offers. South Florida commit Brett Kean stars at quarterback, while former Northwestern commits Andrew and David Dowell line up at running back and wide receiver, respectively. Defensive back Shaun Crawford is a Notre Dame pledge, linebacker Troy Henderson is committed to Syracuse, wide receiver Alex Stump is slated to play for Kentucky, and linebacker Troy Dipre is committed to Kent State.

That talent may help the Eagles on game day, but it doesn’t save anyone on the practice field. Finotti is a big believer in hard practices and only begins to ease off the throttle at the end of the year when it becomes necessary to keep players fresh as the grueling campaign begins to wind down.

“We have very intense practices,” Kean told BuckeyeSports.com. “Everybody is always hyped up for the week, and we’ve always got that one guy who gets us going. Usually it’s either Shaun Crawford or Troy Henderson. It’s an intense practice every time. We go a lot of best on best, and we get a lot of great competition out of each other.

“When we’re on offense, we’re going against the best defense in the state of Ohio, and the defense is going against a pretty good offense. We think it makes ourselves better. We take a lot of pride in the intensity of our practices.”

For Finotti, the perfect practice often involves a heavy dose of hitting, something that not every team embraces as much as St. Edward does. While the schemes reflect the advances that have been made in football theory, there’s still plenty of emphasis on being able to deliver a blow as well as take one.

“I am old school,” he said. “Our schemes are new age and we think they’re cutting edge, but we do a lot of hitting. We’re real physical. When I talk to college coaches, they’re always trying to find that physical football player. Most importantly, to me, we’re worried about injuries and we’re smart about what we’re doing, but you’ve got to come off the football. You’ve got to be able to wrap up a ball carrier. You’ve got to be able to take on a block and get off a block. We work and drill that stuff a lot.”

If Finotti doesn’t like the way his players are performing on any given day in practice, he has a pair of drills designed to wake the team from its collective slumber.

The first is an exercise that generally pits everyone with perhaps the exception of skill players against one another in a one-on-one war of leverage and strength similar to Ohio State’s circle drill. The second pits a wide receiver against a pair of defenders on the midfield logo on the school’s field.

“We have a drill we call ‘king of the line.’ If we think we’re kind of slow before a game, we’ll break it out,” Finotti said. “It’s old school, mano a mano, where someone is winning and someone is losing. You start nose-to-nose on the line and you’ve got to drive ’em off and get your feet on the other side. We always start off the season doing that and see if we feel the toughness. We still do it early in the season until we see some progress.

“With receivers, we have a big ‘E’ logo on our field and you’ve got to escape from the oval around the E. We’ll put a guy in the middle and he’s got to try to get out with two defenders there. There’s always a winner and a loser. It helps us get our physicality back, and I think those are the two that our guys dread the most.”

The players may dread those on the days they actually occur, but they’re able to look at the long-term benefits that come with those practices. When it comes to practice and toughness, St. Edward strives to outwork every other program in the state.

“I would say what separates us is the culture and how we practice and get after things, whether it be in the weight room or on the field,” Stump said. “We have a different mentality, I think, than other schools. We want to get after you and be more physical. That’s the approach we take.

“You’re going to have to sacrifice to get better, and we do. It makes us all better.”

Interactive Tradition
Everything at St. Edward is done with a purpose in mind, and much of it is centered on building the chemistry and family atmosphere that is so coveted by Finotti.

The night before games, the players and coaches gather for a massive meal together. On the morning of games, the team goes to Mass together. Everything that is done to prepare for games is done together.

The football team won a state title under Finotti in 2010, narrowly defeating a Huber Heights Wayne team that was led by a quarterback named Braxton Miller. A painting of the victory hangs in Finotti’s office, and there’s a trophy at the school. However, the coach would prefer that the accomplishments and the character of his program show up in the players themselves instead of in a trophy case.

“To have tradition and have pride, it’s got to be interactive,” he said. “You can’t just talk about it and put it on a wall and say, ‘That’s our tradition.’ You have to feel it. I really look at the chemistry of the group, like how well they get along. Some years you get guys that don’t get along that great, and other years you get guys who are really tight.

“The thing that I look for and that has to be the same is that feeling of respect. You have to respect your teammates, and you have to respect the team aspect of football. No individual ever won a state championship in football. The best teams win championships.”

With so many playmakers and just one ball, it’s easy to see how dissent could move through the ranks if Division I-caliber players feel like they aren’t getting the touches they should. Finotti makes clear to his players that if individual stats are what they’re after, St. Edward is probably not the program for them.

Instead, team play is glorified. Some days players are watching the ball drop right into their hands, and other times they’re the ones clearing the path for their teammate racing toward the end zone.

“I’m just as happy making a block as I am catching a touchdown, and I think everyone else feels that way too,” Stump said. “If everyone has that mentality, it should be no problem. It’s a blessing to have all the weapons that we have.”

The community aspect of the team translates to the school itself. Kean moved to the Cleveland area from south Florida after his sophomore year of high school and said that he was blown away when he saw how much his fellow students cared about football compared to his previous school.

“Everyone is a football fan, and every teacher is usually at the game,” Kean said. “They always give you a lot of support during the week, asking you if you’re ready, and it’s a pretty cool environment. I came from down in south Florida where football is still really good, but it’s not like a Friday Night Lights-type of thing like it is up here. Everyone up here cares about it and gives a lot of support.”

At the end of the day, both Stump and Kean spoke enthusiastically about their love of playing for a coach such as Finotti at a school that so fervently embraces football. The practices feature names such as Tough Guy Tuesday, but those are the reasons that St. Edward can face a program the caliber of Gilman and run it off the field. The culture both on and off the field is the reason his athletes call Finotti a players’ coach and why they speak so highly about the school itself.

“It’s been the best situation and best experience of my life,” Kean said. “I want to send my kids here. Coming here from an outsider environment, nobody really had to welcome me in. I didn’t know what to expect. Nobody had to embrace me, but everyone at the school embraced me with open arms.

“There’s a tradition of excellence – in the classroom and on the field. It’s a community. I know people who graduated from here and talk about it like it’s the best days of their lives, and you’ll always be a part of the community.”

OSU Signees Since 1988:
DB Nate Oliver (2007)
OL Alex Boone (2005)
DE Rodney Bailey (1997)

2015 Top 100 Ohio Prospects:
3. Shaun Crawford (Notre Dame)
10. David Dowell (uncommitted)
11. Andrew Dowell (uncommitted)
16. Alex Stump (Kentucky)
52. Troy Henderson (Syracuse)
57. Brett Kean (South Florida)
79. Troy Dipre (Kent State)

Notable Current FBS Players
Deonte Gibson – Northwestern DL
Sam Grant – Oklahoma TE
Kyle Kalis – Michigan OL
Greg Kuhar – Northwestern DL
Solomon Warfield – Iowa DB

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