Don Bosco dreaming of California competition at De La Salle
RAMSEY, N.J. -- During two-a-day practices last summer, Don Bosco Prep quarterback Brett Knief would steal away from Granatell Stadium between sessions while most teammates idled on campus. "I live less than four minutes away," says Knief . "Other students come from hours away. I like my commute."
On Saturday night, the nation will see how far Knief and the Garden State's top football program are willing to travel to play a game. Five years in the making, the 19th-ranked Ironmen, who have won four of the last six state titles, will travel some 2,800 miles to face No. 2 De La Salle of Concord, Calif., in a game that will be broadcast on ESPNU. "It's going to be the biggest game of my life," says Knief, who started last year's Group IV Non-Public title game in Giants Stadium for Bosco.
Aside from their rich football traditions, the two private Catholic institutions of 1,000 boys each share a matchmaking mentality. In 2003, De La Salle, in the midst of a winning streak that would reach 151 games, agreed to travel east to play Don Bosco, then the reigning New Jersey champs. But there was a scheduling conflict. Bosco, whose North New Jersey Interscholastic League schedule had already been set, was to play Ridgewood (N.J.) in week three. At the request of Bosco administrators, Ridgewood found another opponent to replace the Ironmen, but N.N.J.I.L. members voted not to allow Bosco out of its commitment. "They didn't want to set a precedent of teams pulling out once the schedule is made," says Bosco offensive coordinator Nunzio Campanile, who has since taken over as the school's athletic director as well.
A chance meeting in Cincinnati two years ago resurrected talks between Bosco and De La Salle. In town for the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge, an annual showcase for powerful programs from around the country, the schools' athletic directors agreed to keep the other in mind for open dates. For the last three years, Campanile has filed a petition with New Jersey's state association seeking a waiver to schedule a third out-of-state game, one more than is allowed by New Jersey's guidelines that mandate Bosco play 70% of its 10-game schedule in state. This year, officials from Bosco'sleague allowed the Ironmen to schedule a third out-of-state game.
Already known for his "anyone, anywhere, anytime" scheduling policy, Bosco coach Greg Toal -- picture Fresno State coach Pat Hill with a Jersey accent and sans the mustache--has taken his program national. Over the summer, the team bused south five hours to Washington, D.C. to scrimmage Maryland power DeMatha for one half and Baltimore's Dunbar High for another.
To open the season, the Ionmen chartered a plane to play St. Xavier in Cincinnati, where they lost 17-10, before returning home to beat Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy, 51-0, last week. The traveling band will not face a New Jersey opponent until Oct. 3, when the Teaneck (N.J.) Highwaymen make their way up Route 17. "I've never seen anything like Don Bosco," says De La Salle athletic director Leo Lopoz. "To play two top 25 teams in a month is unheard of."
To listen to Toal and Campanile tell it, they have not traveled far and wide entirely by choice. Though enjoying their depth of talent, the Ironmen, whose 24-game win streak was snapped by St. Xavier, have found it difficult to fill out their schedule. Asked by league officials to provide evidence that he had exhausted all options to play in-state competition, Campanile supplied phone records and want-ads that he placed on state-associated websites. "Too many teams are backing into the playoffs and scheduling not to lose," says Toal, who is 95-9 in nine seasons at Bosco. "We're looking at a bigger picture."
Toal is not the only one seeking competition beyond his state borders. Last week, Apopka (Fla.) traveled to Batesville, Miss., to play No. 15 South Panola, which owns the nation's longest ongoing winning streak, at 79 games. Likewise, No. 9 Byrnes High of Duncan, S.C., hosted Lincoln High of Tallahassee, Fla. "In states where there may be one powerful team, the top programs are thinking outside the state lines to find competition," says Rashid Ghazi, a partner with Paragon Marketing Group, which helps facilitate matchups and secure air time on ESPN. This will be the third time that he has worked with De La Salle and the second with Bosco.
Taking on all comers, St. Xavier coach Steve Specht has been proactive in scheduling games against Cathedral (Indianapolis), Trinity (Louisville, Ky.), St. Ignatius (Cleveland), St. Edward (Lakewood, Ohio) and Prattville (Ala.). Just last week, the Bombers, who play in the four-team Greater Catholic League South, traveled two hours to play Trinity at the University of Louisville's Papa Johns Stadium. "We're not about going undefeated as much as we want to make sure we are challenged," says Specht, whose team lost to Trinity, 17-6. "I wish we could afford the travel budget like Bosco."
In fact, Don Bosco has had the financial backing to expand its horizons. The parents-run Touchdown Club helps fund operations, uniforms are supplied through an agreement with Reebok, parents will defray costs on both trips and an arrangement with Paragon and De La Salle all but guarantees no party will lose money on the trip. No numbers were releassed for the California trip, but the trip to Cincinnati ran around $8,000. Additionally, on May 15, Bosco invited its alumni to a $200-per-plate dinner and roast in honor of Green Bay Packers tailback Ryan Grant, who was coming off a successful rookie season. Guests bid on autographed jerseys and paintings featuring the cast of The Sopranosin a silent auction, and Phil Simms, a two-time Super Bowl winner whose son Matthew played at Bosco, was the emcee of the festivities. "When we first got to Bosco we used to practice on a field that had rocks and glass on it," Toal says. "The change in support has been phenomenal."
On Saturday, Toal's wife, Susan, will not be one of the 75 Bosco players, coaches and family staying at the Hilton in California. Instead she will travel north to Boston College to watch the couple's youngest son, Brian, who would have played against De La Salle on the 2003 Bosco team, start at linebacker for the Eagles. "She's coming to my game because her son's college team has a shorter commute than her husband's high school team," says Brian. "I used to think traveling and hotels were saved for college. It's a new world."