Every opponent is a paper tiger before the start of the season.
There’s no way for St. Joseph’s Prep players and coaches to know, for sure, whether Marietta, Ga., really merits the No. 9 spot in USA Today’s Super 25 national rankings.
Or whether IMG Academy of Bradenton, Fla., truly belongs at the No. 7 spot.
Or whether St. John’s College of Washington actually is the No. 5 team in the country.
So it follows that there’s no way to say with certainty that the Hawks have the most challenging schedule in the history of Philadelphia-area high school football.
But it sure looks that way.
On paper, anyway.
I mean, what local team has ever opened the season with three games against opponents ranked in the Top 10 in the country?
Not the Top 50.
Not the Top 25.
The Top 10.
“Iron sharpens iron,” said St Joe’s junior quarterback Kyle McCord, repeating a Hawks’ mantra. “We’re excited to go against the best. It’s going to help us in the long run."
Daunting schedules dotted with high-profile opponents are nothing new for area teams of St. Joseph’s status. It’s one of the foundations of a power program, providing multiple benefits: A competitive challenge, a perfect prep for league and state tournament play and a recruiting lure for prospective student-athletes.
“We’re deeply honored to get to play against such great competition,” said St. Joe’s senior linebacker Liam Johnson, a team captain and Princeton recruit. “We’re going to play them all the same way, 100 percent intensity, our brand of football.”
St. Joe’s opens Friday night at Marietta. The Hawks play St. John’s College Sept. 6 at Rutgers, then will host IMG Sept. 13 at a site to be determined.
Here’ a closer look at those three foes:
Marietta: This team was 5-6 last season while several transfers were forced to sit out under Georgia eligibility rules. Marietta is fully stocked now and coming off a season-opening victory in which quarterback Harrison Bailey, a Tennessee recruit, passed for 367 yards and five touchdowns. His favorite receiver is tight end Arik Gilbert, a five-star recruit by rivals.com with offers from Alabama, Clemson and Georgia, among others
St. John’s College: This team was 9-1 last year and finished No. 20 in the country. St. John’s features quarterback Sol-Jay Maiara, a BYU recruit, as well as five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, an LSU recruit, and five-star linebacker Mekhail Sherman, a Georgia commit.
IMG Academy: The Ascenders were 7-1 season and finished No. 5 in nation by USA Today. They loaded up with transfers such as five-star cornerback Elias Ricks, an LSU recruit. Defensive tackle Demonte Capehart is a five-star athlete and Clemson recruit.
St. Joe’s has no shortage of top-tier athletes as well. McCord is an Ohio State recruit. Junior wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and junior linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. are among the country’s top prospects in the class of 2021.
The Hawks are stacked with scholarship-level athletes at nearly every position, plus a winning culture enhanced by 40 victories in the last 41 games.
“We don’t care about rankings,” said senior offensive lineman Casey Stephenson, a team captain and Howard University recruit. “We just want to play football and battle out with our brothers.”
First-year coach, Tim Roken, who spent the previous nine seasons as an assistant, remembers the Hawks taking some lumps early in his tenure in games against North Jersey superpowers such as Don Bosco Prep.
Former coach Gabe Infante believed better competition would propel his program to another level. That philosophy has paid off, as the Hawks enter the season as the No. 11 team in the USA Today Super 25 and the clear favorites to capture additional Catholic League, city and Class 6A state titles.
But it’s doubtful that any local team ever has faced a season-starting gauntlet of three opponents ranked in the Top 10 in the nation.
“We have to find a way to get better,” Roken said after a recent morning practice at the Hawks’ facility at Brady Field. “Anytime we get an opportunity to play great competition, we’re always had the philosophy here that iron sharpens iron.
“Let’s go play great competition and see what we need to get better at. That’s one way to find that out, play teams that are coached up great and have discipline and are physical.
“They are going to test you, and you’re going to find out a lot about yourself.”