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Open Mike: Maturing St. Francis takes turn for the better

It may be a strange place in the season to have a turning point, but consecutive lackluster weeks of play for St. Francis would set off a chain of events spurring a new attitude and work ethic, helping point the football team in the right direction.

Despite what looked to be a runaway win against O’Hara in week six of the season, St. Francis head coach Jerry Smith said that he was disappointed with the sloppy play that carried over into a lopsided loss at Aquinas. There was not enough attitude and effort from his team, according to Smith.

So, the veteran head coach decided it was time to get back to the basics of blocking and tackling, by throwing on pads for an hour every Monday and taking to working on the sleds. Smith admitted that some of his coaches thought he was a little crazy, but he threw caution to the wind, because he felt it was what this group needed.

It has worked pretty well, the past three weeks. And now St. Francis goes into the Nov. 14 Monsignor Martin semifinal with not just a three-game winning streak, but also feeling a lot better about itself and each other.

The Red Raiders went on to outscore fellow MMAA foes Timon and St. Mary’s 69 – 6, before a commanding 44 – 0 win against O’Hara in the quarterfinals, which may not have been much different on the scoreboard than the last time the two played, but looked a lot different in the performance.

“The kids knew it and they felt bad,” Smith said. “We kind of went back to old school stuff. It ended up being the right thing to do.”

Smith said that the team has also found great value in hooking up with Mike Masters and his Cross Training program, for a third season. It helped get the focus of off winning and losing, instead placing it on playing for one another. Smith said that it has helped bring closer a team with a vast variety of ages.

“When you get young kids that have each others’ back, it’s a tough thing to beat,” said Smith, who has been noticeably enjoying his time with this year’s group.

St. Francis has sustained some major injuries throughout the season, most notably a season-ending one to senior quarterback Jake Dolegala. But the Red Raiders have made no excuses. Smith is the first to point out that fellow MMAA teams have endured much of the same. Senior back Adam DiMillo never played a snap this year for Timon; St. Mary’s back Nick Vallone was lost, early on, and St. Joe’s two-way force Rod Payne is out for the season with a torn ACL.

Smith praised St. Joe’s coach Dennis Gilbert for his team’s accomplishments with a banged-up group.

“With all of the stuff they’ve gone through, shuffling people in and out on their line, to maintain that record [7 – 2] – my hat’s off to him,” Smith said. “I think he can be coach of the year, in my eyes, for what he’s done.

“That being said, we want to knock them off,” he added, with a laugh.

The same case can be made for what Smith has accomplished with a banged-up group of his own. Garnering a three seed in the playoffs, getting back to .500 at 5 – 5 and making a return trip to The Ralph for the semifinals is not too bad of a season, either. And it’s not over yet.
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