Last year’s darkhorse knows they’re starting in the shadows again.
But for the St. Thomas More Knights, the opportunity to surprise their rivals and build on what was an emotional and successful 2017 season is a chance to cherish.
On the heels of Friday’s decisive 35-0 exhibition win over Catholic rival the Notre Dame Jugglers, the Knights appear to have a lot on the ball heading into the new season.
Behind quarterback Dario Ciccone, who only made 10 pass attempts but connected on seven for 240 yards, STM steamrolled the Jugglers and flashed some impressive mid-season form.
There’s still a lot of room for improvement, head coach Steve De Lazzari said.
“There always is (areas to improve), the alignment and assignment sometimes wasn’t quite right, or in terms of their reads or linebacker drops, but it’s early in the season,” said De Lazzari. “(Notre Dame is) a big rival so the guys were all excited about it and sometimes you lose the thought of how you should execute just because you’re pumped up for that play.”
The victory was delivered through the air, with Ciccone and Co. tallying four touchdowns via the pass.
The game’s first score, however, came at the end of a 60-yard drive, with the Grade 12 pivot darting into the end zone.
They led 28-0 at halftime, thanks to three more majors via the air.
Michael Simone finished with three catches – all ending in the end zone – for 120 yards, while fellow receiver Vasco Repole also caught three passes, totalling 103 yards and a major.
The trio bring a lot of chemistry to the table, having been friends for a handful of years, De Lazzari said.
“Dario, Michael and Vasco have been playing together since elementary school. That chemistry is long developed and it’s pretty special,” remarked the coach.
They were working with a new offensive system, implemented by new offensive coordinator Joe Adams, and if the first game is any indication, the players have a good read on it.
“(Adams) did an excellent job in calling the plays and the execution. We’re running a new offensive system this year so him bringing that in from scratch this summer and the kids learning it and executing it on Friday was pretty special.”
While the running game wasn’t as prominent, the game plan is to lean slightly to a ground attack, with Ciccone’s arm being an additional weapon to keep the opposition on their toes.
Julian Valerio gained 35 yards over six carries, while Jack Wagner ran for 30 yards.
On defence, the Knights were paced by lineman Daniel Auld and Wagner, at linebacker, with each picking six tackles. Auld would tally a pair of quarterback sacks, and Wagner a single.
Last year’s conference defensive player of the year, Sam Steele, is one of the team leaders who bring a well-rounded football IQ to the field.
Along with the likes of Auld, Ciccone, Repole and Simone, Steele gives the squad an experience level that should bolster the Grade 11 group who bring youthful energy and enthusiasm, said De Lazzari.
“Like last year, this team has a lot of speed and a lot of athleticism. Those I think are the two hallmarks,” De Lazzari said.
Emulating last year’s perfect season record, where the only loss they experienced was in the B.C. Subway Bowl semifinals, would seem a lofty target considering the turnover and calibre of graduating veterans.
However, the benefits of a larger roster and that athleticism, mixed with the returning veteran leadership, make all things possible.
“This team is not that far behind. The football savvy (play) was because we were really Grade 12-heavy (last year) and when you have those players for a couple of years, they’re use to the system and how we do things.
“This year’s Grade 12s are kind of at that level and the Grade 11s are going to get there,” he said.
Buoyed by the strong start, the team wipes the slate clean this week in preparation for their next opponent.
The Knights’ face another exhibition test on Friday, 7:30 p.m. at Burnaby Lake West, when they take on Samuel Robertson Technical.
The Maple Ridge program, ranks No. 5 in AA, should provide a tougher test before STM launches the regular season on Sept. 21 against the Bears.