Written by Mark Griffin
Friday, 17 October 2008 14:46
Ken James recalled the first time his Northwood football team met Cardinal Stritch. It was his first game as the Rangers' coach, in 1986, when the Cardinals were in the City League. Stritch won 20-6 in a game that included a combined 13 turnovers by both teams.
"It was a bloodbath," James said. "I figured if we continued to play them, it would become a rivalry."
The Rangers and Cardinals clash on Oct. 24, and the host Rangers will be a huge favorite. Northwood was 7-1 and 4-0 in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference entering an Oct. 18 game against Toledo Christian. Stritch was 1-7 and 1-3 prior to a date at Hilltop.
The Rangers beat the Cardinals 56-18 last season, and James is 6-3 all-time against Stritch.
First-year Cardinals coach Conrad Kolbow knows what his team will be up against.
"They are definitely the class of the league this year," he said. "They're extremely well-coached. Ken James' teams have consistently been one of the best teams in the league and they may have the best player in the league in the (Kyle) Gunn kid. There is no weakness on the team.
"If we're going to pull an upset, we're going to have to play a perfect game and get a few breaks. We're not going to sneak up on them. I don't think that's a secret."
A win over Toledo Christian would give the Rangers at least a tie for the TAAC title, its sixth championship since the 2001 season. Stritch won the TAAC in 2006 but finished 1-9 last season and is struggling again this year with an inexperienced roster.
James, however, isn't taking anything for granted.
"The first year we were in the league (2000), Stritch was the favorite and the league title came down to our game and beat them in Week 10 to win the title," James said. "We hadn't played them for several years, when they were in the City League, and that kind of stoked the rivalry again when it came down to the league title the first year we were both in the TAAC."
Cardinal Stritch blanked the Rangers 18-0 in a downpour two years ago.
"The schools are close and the kids know each other," James said. "They see each other at the mall and at Wendy's and things like that, so there is some extra competitiveness in that type of game. You have to see those guys all year long, so if you lose, you have to live with that the whole year. It's cool to have a rivalry game in Week 10. Even if one team isn't doing well, it's easy to get the kids fired up for it."
The Stritch-Northwood rivalry is known as the Big Apple Deli Game. Scholarships are donated to each school in one player's name from each team, courtesy of Tim Williams at Big Apple Deli.
Northwood posted its first shutout of the season last week, 40-0 against Ottawa Hills, and is outscoring opponents by a 39-14 margin this season.
Gunn, a senior quarterback, has rushed for 851 yards and eight touchdowns on 114 carries, and has completed 45-of-82 passes for 794 yards and seven TDs with four interceptions. Running back Zach Bernejo has 52 carries for 521 yards and eight scores, and senior split end Chris Keith leads Northwood with 24 catches for 605 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior middle linebacker Justin Grindle has a team-high 75 tackles and three sacks, while senior Tom Lackner and sophomore Jake Pressley have three interceptions apiece.
The Rangers have an outside shot of reaching the Division V playoffs, but obviously will need to beat Toledo Christian and Stritch to get in. Their last playoff appearance was in 2004.
"A couple teams ahead of us need to lose that are rival games," James said. "Those are games that could go either way. We'll need a little luck. If we were in Division IV, we'd have a better chance of getting in."
Kolbow, who was a Stritch assistant the past three seasons, has had to reshuffle his starting lineup throughout the season due to inexperience.
"We have very little football savvy," he said. "They play hard and they want to win, but we have seniors at the freshman and sophomore (football) mentality level and that makes it difficult. There were lot of people who came out who had little or no experience who were seniors who were in the starting lineup at the beginning of the year."
The Cardinals, whose lone win came in Week 5 against Danbury, have been plagued by turnovers all season. One bright spot has been the play of the offensive line, Kolbow said.
"Our offensive line has played well all year," he said. "We've only given up one or two sacks all year. Three seniors and two sophomores have started all eight games. They understand the (spread offense) scheme very well and they're very smart kids. We only have one returning starter (senior guard Kirk White) on the offensive line."
Junior quarterback A.J. Zalewski is 30-for-62 passing for 396 yards and four touchdowns.
"He's learning, and he throws the ball fairly well," Kolbow said. "He's struggling a little with his mechanics and his reads, but we're working with him on that."
J.C. Parker, a senior first-year halfback, leads the Cardinals with 222 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 50 carries. Split end Will Kamelesky, a 6-6 senior, has 16 catches for 339 and five touchdowns.