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Goss: St. Francis vs. St. Xavier a Joliet Catholic linebacker reunion

St. Xavier's Zach Dolph makes tackle during Cougars' game against Robert Morris. | Supplied photo

St. Xavier's Zach Dolph makes a tackle during the Cougars' game against Robert Morris. | Supplied photo

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Updated: October 28, 2013 7:39AM



You hardly could blame Zach Dolph.

“Two years ago when we played St. Francis there, we were starting our pregame stretching and I went to the wrong side of the stadium,” the St. Xavier senior linebacker said as he prepared for Saturday’s 5 p.m. clash at Joliet Memorial Stadium. “It’s strange. I’ve been playing at the stadium since I started with the Joliet Raiders when I was 6.”

“Zach’s a good buddy. I can’t imagine what it feels like for him to stand on the opposite sideline,” St. Francis senior linebacker Josh Mander said.

Dolph, Mander and St. Francis sophomore linebacker Mike Passo are Joliet Catholic graduates, from an era when the Hilltoppers produced a stream of college linebackers.

Mander, whose final season at Joliet Catholic was 2008, rattled off names — Nick Clancy and Josh Greenback (final season 2007); Dolph, Jake Stockman and Andy Roth, 2009; Mike Mettille, 2010; Passo, 2011. Clancy played at Boston College and was with the Atlanta Falcons in preseason. Stockman starts at Division I Buffalo. Roth is at Millikin, Mettille at Penn.

“I’ve known Nick since sixth grade,” Mander said. “Jake and I played pee-wee together since we were 5 or 6. When you’re growing up, you never expect all these guys will continue on the way they have. We’ve been blessed.”

“The coaches we had in high school, coach Mack (Cory McLaughlin) and coach (Mark) Mettille, brought a collegiate mentality to us,” Dolph said. “They prepared us for the mental game. It’s not surprising so many of us have had success in college.”

Dolph, a full-time starter for three years, has enjoyed his share. He broke St. Xavier’s season tackle record in 2012. Cougars coach Mike Feminis predicted the finance/mathematics major with a 3.8 GPA will be an Academic All-American and added he has an excellent chance to be an All-American.

Mander and Passo are starters after playing significant time last season.

“No matter if Mander and I haven’t seen each other in a while, it’s always cordial,” Dolph said. “We’ve still got our own inside jokes that go back to high school.

“I’m happy for Passo that he’s starting, too. He came up to varsity as a sophomore when I was a senior.”

For Passo’s part, “I’d love to see guys I know from high school and talk with them — and their parents — after this game. It’s awesome. It’s nice to catch up.”

Both teams are 2-1. St. Xavier is No. 5 in the NAIA national poll, St. Francis No. 22.

Despite the Cougars’ 12-1 dominance over the past 13 years, St. Xavier vs. St. Francis is huge. Opposing players and coaches know each other well. This also is the Saints’ home opener and Homecoming.

“This rivalry is like Joliet Catholic and Providence,” Mander said. “That’s the type of feeling you get.”

St. Xavier’s offense is young. However, “they’re still St. X,” Mander said. “Defending them is always a task.”

“I’m a young player, too, but I feel I know a lot,” Passo said, reminding not to overlook St. Xavier’s offensive potential. “Our defense is not quite what it was last year, but I think we will get there.”

A key for the Saints will be to add to the 11 turnovers they’ve forced in three games. Passo said defensive coordinator Jeff Knowles has his unit watch the Bears’ Charles Tillman, “how he punches the ball out. Coach wants us to do that.”

Meanwhile, senior quarterback E.J. White is No. 1 in NAIA in passing yards and total yards. The Saints have been golden converting third downs; the Cougars are No. 1 at preventing third-down conversions.

“They’re a powerful offensive team,” Dolph said. “They get to the edge. But I feel our team speed will get us to the right places.”

Former Hilltoppers plotting how to outdo each other? This will be fun.



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