Don’t expect St. Michael’s Philip Rivers or McGill-Toolen’s Norman Joseph to downplay Friday night’s first football meeting between the two Gulf Coast Catholic high schools.
“I think it’s huge,” Joseph said.
Rivers even went a little further.
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“I know at the start of this week some coaches would be like, ‘Hey, it’s just another game, guys,'” he said. “Well, it’s not just another game. It’s big business. This is a big thing for the Catholic community.”
On paper, there’s a big difference between the burgeoning St. Michael, Baldwin County’s relatively new Catholic school, and the long-established McGill-Toolen, Mobile Catholic school.
The Cardinals played their first varsity football game in 2017. They have a total of 14 wins under three head coaches. Rivers, the longtime NFL quarterback, has won nine of those games in his second season as head coach.
McGill played his first football game in 1920. The Yellow Jackets have 518 wins under 26 head coaches. They have won 10 regional championships — all since 1986 — and the Class 7A state title in 2015. Joseph, a longtime college coach, won nine games in his sophomore season at the school.
St. Michael plays in class 4A, McGill in class 6A.
“There is no doubt that we are and should be the underdog,” Rivers said on Sports Talk 99.5 FM in Mobile this week. “They talk about the tradition they’ve had there for many, many years and obviously that they’re a 6A high school. We’re the underdog and I think that’s okay.
“The one thing that I will always believe in and any player who dresses for us will believe in is that we can go there and win the game. It doesn’t mean we’ll always do that, but our guys will go there with that approach and mentality and that makes a difference. If you don’t think you have a chance, you really don’t have one. You will do our best, I know that.”
Both teams seem to be headed in the right direction mid-season. The Cardinals (3-2) have won back-to-back victories since a narrow loss to regional rivals Bayside Academy on Sept. 2. Their only other loss came against Class 5A Gulf Shores (34-27) in the season opener.
“Wow. They’re obviously a well-trained team at all stages,” Joseph said. “They give you some really tough things to work on. They’re tough to defend. It’s going to be a great game. There’s supposed to be a big crowd I know we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
McGill (2-2) has also won two games in a row after a 0-2 start. The Yellow Jackets rolled over Robertsdale (38-7) and Murphy (34-14) to level their record. Joseph’s team continues to rotate with freshman Aaden Shamburger and sophomore Andrew Murchison with two young quarterbacks. Both have the same goal: Bringing the ball to the South Alabama wide receiver obliges Anthony Eager.
“We have two young quarterbacks who are both playing well,” Joseph said. “When you’re the defensive coordinator for opposing teams, you have to develop two game plans for McGill based on which quarterback the game is. They have some similarities, but they’re also different in some ways, and I think that’s to our advantage.”
St. Michael counters with senior QB Josh Murphy and playmakers Ezra Sexton and Braylan Green. Murphy threw for 1,040 yards and 9 TDs and was caught twice. Green has 30 receptions for 500 yards and 3 TDs. Sexton has 392 yards rushing and 5 TDs with 4 receiving TDs. Clay Barr (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 9.5 TFL) and Tyler Cella (51 tackles, 2 TFL) lead the defense.
“We need to go over there and settle in early,” Rivers said. “We can’t make big plays or give up a crazy turnover or fumble for a touchdown and all of a sudden we’re down 14-0. What is already a difficult task would be made even more difficult if something goes wrong early on.
“So, get used to it, and then the keys to the game will be the same: stop the run and eliminate big plays defensively and lead the football and protect it offensively. We keep it that simple. We need to do more to win the game but if we do these things well then we should have a chance and that applies at all levels of football.”
This will not be a one-off meeting between the two Catholic schools. McGill will visit St Michael’s next year and both coaches are hoping the rivalry will continue yearly thereafter.
“It could definitely be a nice rivalry,” Joseph said. “Maybe one day we’ll end up in the same region. This might be like the Murphy game which is still a great ongoing rivalry and classic game. I could see the same here if we can continue to play as non-regional schools. If we’re ever in the same region then obviously that would add to the scale.”
Rivers admitted he wasn’t exactly planning on playing a sophomore at St Michael McGill-Toolen. It just happened.
“When the opportunity came up, I was like, ‘Damn, why not? Might as well start now,'” he said. “I think it should be a game to be played every year for the rest of the time if managed properly, which it will be.
“The teams will pray together before the game. I think it can be a hell of a deal. Of course there’s going to be passion and emotion and they want to put little St. Michael in his place and we want to say, ‘Hey, we belong up here.’ It’s going to be a great evening. Whatever happens at the end of the day, hopefully on Monday, we’ll be better off playing them and going to Orange Beach next week.