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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“Going into this week I know some coaches would say, ‘Hey, it’s just another game, guys,’” he said. “Well, it’s not just another game. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for the Catholic community.”
On paper, there is a huge difference between growing St. Michael, the relatively new Baldwin County Catholic school, and tradition-rich McGill-Toolen, Mobile’s Catholic school.
The Cardinals played their first varsity football game in 2017. They have 14 total victories under three head coaches. Rivers, the longtime NFL quarterback, has won nine of those games in his second season as head coach.
McGill played its first football game in 1920. The Yellow Jackets have 518 victories under 26 head coaches. They’ve won 10 region championships – all since 1986 – and the 2015 Class 7A state title. Joseph, a longtime college coach, has won nine games in his second season at the school.
St. Michael plays in Class 4A, McGill in Class 6A.
“There is no doubt we are the underdog and should be,” Rivers said on Sports Talk 99.5 FM in Mobile this week. “You are talking about the tradition they’ve had there over many, many years, and obviously being a 6A high school. We are the underdog, and I think that’s OK.
“The one thing I will always believe and that every player that dresses for us will believe is that we can go over there and win the game. That doesn’t mean we are always going to, but our guys will go over there with that approach and mentality, and that accounts for something. If you don’t think you have a chance, then you really don’t. They’ll get our best shot I know that.”
Both teams seem to be trending in the right direction at the mid-point of the season. The Cardinals (3-2) have won two straight since a narrow road loss to region rival Bayside Academy on Sept. 2. Their only other loss came against Class 5A Gulf Shores (34-27) in the season opener.
“Wow. Obviously, they are a well-coached team in all phases,” Joseph said. “They give you some really tough things to work on. They are difficult to defend. It’s going to be a heck of a game. There should be a huge crowd there. I know we are looking forward to the opportunity.”
McGill (2-2) also has won two straight games after an 0-2 start. The Yellow Jackets rolled over Robertsdale (38-7) and Murphy (34-14) to even their record. Joseph’s team continues to rotate a pair of young quarterbacks in freshman Aaden Shamburger and sophomore Andrew Murchison. Both have the same goal: Get the ball to South Alabama wide receiver commit Anthony Eager.
“We have two young quarterbacks who are both playing well,” Joseph said. “If you are the defensive coordinator for opposing teams, you have to come up with two game plans for McGill based on which quarterback is the game. They have some similarities, but they are also different in some ways, and I think that works to our advantage.”
St. Michael counters with senior QB Josh Murphy and playmakers Ezra Sexton and Braylan Green. Murphy has thrown for 1,040 yards and 9 TDs and been intercepted twice. Green has 30 receptions for 500 yards and 3 TDs. Sexton has 392 yards rushing and 5 TDs to go with 4 receiving TDs. Clay Barr (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 9.5 TFL) and Tyler Cella (51 tackles, 2 TFL) lead the defense.
“We have to go over and get settled in early,” Rivers said. “We can’t have any big plays or give up a crazy turnover or fumble for a touchdown and all of a sudden we are down 14-0. What is already a tough task would be even tougher if something goes awry early.
“So, get settled in, and then the keys to the game will be the same: stop the run and eliminate big plays defensively and run the football and protect it on offense. We keep it about that simple. We’ll have to do more than that to win the game, but if we do those things well, we should have a chance, and that is the same on any level of football.”
This won’t be a one-time meeting between the two Catholic schools. McGill is scheduled to visit St. Michael next year, and both coaches hope the rivalry continues on a yearly basis even after that.
“It could definitely be a nice rivalry,” Joseph said. “We may end up in the same region one day. This could be like the Murphy game, which still a big ongoing rivalry and a classic game. I could see the same thing here if we are able to continue to play as non-region schools. Then, if we are ever in the same region, that would obviously add to the magnitude of it.”
Rivers admitted he wasn’t necessarily planning on playing McGill-Toolen in Year 2 of his time at St. Michael. It just happened.
“Once the opportunity came, I thought, ‘Heck, why not? Might as well start now,’” he said. “I think it should be a game played every year for the rest of time if it’s handled the right way, which it will be.
“The teams will pray together before the game. I think it can be a heck of a deal. Of course, there will be passion and emotion and they want to put little St. Michael in its place, and we want to say, ‘Hey, we belong up here.’ It will be a heck of an evening. Whatever happens at the end of the day, hopefully on Monday, we will be better for playing them and heading into Orange Beach next week.”