The much-anticipated rematch of the 2017 Division I football state championship is set to kick off this Sunday afternoon, as Bishop Hendricken will take on defending champ La Salle, who pulled off the upset in an epic 22-21 win last season.
Once again, the two top clubs in the state went through the gauntlet of the regular season and have come out on the other end on top, with Hendricken finishing with a perfect 7-0 league record while the Rams carry a 6-1 league record. The two teams squared off early in the regular season, with the Hawks cruising to a 48-27 win thanks to a dominant second half.
“You can’t take Hendricken and you can’t take La Salle and not talk about the other team. It’s a rivalry game, it’s the state championship and there’s so much at stake,” said Hendricken head coach Keith Croft of the two teams.
The Hawks and Rams have squared off in the state championship six times in the past seven years. Although these two programs are very familiar with one another, Croft and company are entering Friday night’s showdown with a clean slate approach.
“Every year teams do something a little different, you have new players at the different skill positions. Their offense and defense may have some different weaknesses that they had not had in the past but at the end of the day it’s Hendricken and La Salle. It’s going to be tough, physical football,” said Croft. “You can’t look back at regular season games because we have been on the opposite side of that so many times … you can’t reverse it, it’s one game.”
Croft also admitted that it has been a bittersweet week watching his seniors prepare for their final meaningful high school game.
“It’s sentimental. This is a great group of seniors that we’re going to miss. You go through the year, you start prepping in the winter, you see these kids grow and develop over the past four years. Some of them I would like to keep growing and developing but this is high school, this is their senior year,” said Croft. “This is what they’re leaving behind for next year’s group, how we finish, how we play.”
The two teams have been neck and neck over the past decade, with the rivalry at times being more passionate than others. At this point, the teams share plenty of admiration for one another’s success.
“Me and (La Salle) Coach (Geoff) Marcone, I would consider him a friend. There is a lot of mutual respect between the two programs and we share very similar problems,” said Croft. “He always says that we live in parallel universes, the expectations are high at both places and we do our best to manage that. A lot of mutual respect between the programs, I think that era of maybe not getting along is over.”
The Rams shocked the state last season when a fourth quarter comeback sealed its first title since 2008, while also snapping Hendricken’s streak of seven consecutive championships. Croft believes it is going to take stout defense to reverse the Hawks’ fortunes this year.
“Four quarters of intensity, physical football, and being able to get off the field on third down,” said Croft. “We weren’t able to do that last year. We gave them too many chances and we couldn’t get the ball back to our offense. We gave them too many chances and they cashed in.”