Every Role Counts At St. Xavier

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

When four-star linebacker and Ohio State commit Justin Hilliard was a ninth-grader playing for Cincinnati St. Xavier, he wasn’t deemed good enough to be grouped in the better half of the split freshman team.

The blue squad featured better players, and Hilliard was instead shuttled off to the developmental white squad. In those days, he thought of himself as a baseball player and still hadn’t hit the growth spurt that helped lead to the explosion in his recruitment after his sophomore season.

“Freshman year I came in and I was on second string,” Hilliard told BSB. “I knew my role – to get the other guys better – but I worked my tail off and the coaches there developed me into the player I am right now. Everyone has a role on the team, and it’s exciting. You’ll get the chance to be coached by some of the best coaches in Ohio, which has really made me a better player.”

The importance of embracing your job and doing it to the best of your ability is something harped on by head coach Steve Specht, who coached the Bombers to OHSAA Division I state championships in 2005 and 2007. Those roles may change from year to year – after all, improvement is demanded – or even within a season.

With a 129-player varsity roster that includes just four sophomores, a lack of playing time is widespread given the sheer volume of players compared to spots. The worst thing a player can do at St. Xavier, though, is step outside what is expected of them.

“You’re talking about 125 juniors and seniors that buy in,” Specht said. “Not all of them are going to play. But they buy in, and they believe in a bigger purpose and believe in a bigger cause and want to be a part of it. I think when you have that many kids sacrificing for one another, you can have good things. We have kids that play, and we have a lot of kids that will never play. But it takes every single one to play a role for this team to be successful.

“I think they understand. I always tell them that everyone is going to have a role, and it’s going to be an important role. You’re going to have a seat on the bus, but don’t ever try to get into someone else’s seat. That’s the big thing. We’re very clear with them. Our guys get it, and they like to compete.”

Much of that comes simply with age. As freshmen, you’re guaranteed to end up on the ninth-grade squad. The junior varsity team is populated largely by sophomores, and upperclassmen play varsity. As players progress, they work their way through a system that has delivered proven results during Specht’s tenure.

“Freshman year, you learn the ropes and what St. Xavier football is all about,” senior defensive back David Leisring said. “A lot of St. Xavier football is assignment football. You do your job, you work hard, you train in the offseason and you practice hard. The coaches know what to expect out of us, and by the time we’re juniors and seniors we can step on the field and really make a difference.”

Of course, getting to the varsity level doesn’t guarantee that a player will see the field. Although the heavy participation allows St. Xavier’s coaches to avoid having to field two-way players if they don’t want to, it also prevents any sort of steady playing time for a large chunk of players.

Every time, the players who aren’t talented enough to contribute on the field accept that and find their own way to help the cause.

“People know when they come in that not everyone is going to play,” Hilliard said. “That’s the special thing about St. X. We have 130 guys who come out, and there are some kids who know they’re probably not going to play. But everyone has a role on the team, even if it’s keeping us pumped up on the sidelines or giving us a good look on the scout team. When everyone is doing their job 100 percent, good things happen.”

The massive turnout makes it impossible for everyone to play between the lines on Friday nights, but it leads to much-needed competition on the practice field. While Specht advocates players staying within their roles in the program, that doesn’t mean a player can’t earn a better one over the course of any given week.

“That’s another benefit that comes with having a good team – the competition,” Hilliard said. “When I go to practice, I know I have someone right behind me that wants to take my spot, and the same goes for everyone else. I would say it makes us a lot better, more hardworking and more committed. It brings the best out of everyone.”

The work that goes into practice shows up on game day. In a 31-12 win against Cincinnati Colerain on Sept. 5, Boston College commit and starting running back Ben Glines was injured in the second quarter and missed the rest of the game.

Junior running back Sean Prophit stepped in and performed admirably, racking up 144 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.

“Some kids only play scout team, and some kids are out here starting,” Prophit said. “People are always fighting for a starting job, and that keeps it competitive within the team. I think that’s a big reason why we get better week in and week out.”

With St. Xavier being a Jesuit school, prayer is always front and center in the program. The Bombers attend a mass the afternoon of each game and gather in prayer at the conclusion of the contest. Earlier in the week, the players focus on a theme of the week that incorporates prayer into an idea or concept meant to help the team improve.

Having lost to Colerain three times in the last two seasons, including a playoff loss in 2012, the choice for a theme that week was a no-brainer.

“Every week we get a theme we want to focus on, and this week was redemption because they beat us the last two years, including in the playoffs,” Hilliard said. “We focus on that theme and use that to motivate us.”

In front of a raucous home crowd Sept. 5, the Bombers earned that redemption in an emphatic fashion. From the time tailgating begins until the last words of the alma mater and fight song are sung by players and students, the entire atmosphere surrounding a St. Xavier home game is that of a marquee event.

Specht, who played for the Bombers when a little-known coach named Urban Meyer was leading the defensive backs, is trying to make sure that his players take in everything surrounding the games while they still can.

“I tell the kids all the time to enjoy the event and the experience,” Specht said. “I never did when I played here. I was too caught up in the football end of it. I didn’t step back and enjoy it. I still don’t do it enough as a coach. To be a part of something special like this will last you a lifetime.”

By all accounts, his players are doing a fine job of that.

“When you first run out of those gates and you hear the crowd stand up and roar, there’s nothing like it,” Leisring said. “It sends chills through your body. I can’t describe it any other way.”

Making The Case For St. X
When asked what separates St. Xavier from other high schools, the aforementioned three players went in three different directions. Hilliard chose to focus on the coaching staff, citing his own massive improvement from his freshman season to senior year.

“I would say the discipline here,” he said. “I think we have the best coaches here. They’re always preaching discipline, whether it’s through the little things in the weight room or reading your keys or running hard every single play on the field. Our coaches push us the most so they can get the most out of us.”

Leisring spoke of the bond between players that is developed during intense practices.

“Practice may get a little chippy, but we’re all brothers,” he said. “We pull together. We have this thing where we close our fingers together and say ‘family’ and that’s true. That’s not some fluffy term. We really mean it. We’re a family here, and that sets us apart.”

Lastly, Prophit invoked the words of a teacher who often speaks to the team.

“If you want to better yourself, you should come here,” he said. “One of our teachers, Mr. (Paul) Rieselman, always tells us, ‘It’ll be the hardest thing you’ve ever loved.’ That sums it up.”

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