Saint Xavier football entered week one of the 2017 regular season ranked twenty-fourth in the Coach’s Preseason Poll despite finishing last year with a losing record.
It was the first year since 1999 that the Cougars finished a season with more losses than they had wins. Attached to the top-25 national ranking in 2017 is respect among coaches in the NAIA for a Saint Xavier program that is rich with success.
Head coach Mike Feminis and the rest of his Cougars plan to move on from a disappointing 2016 with a clean slate and a goal to assert their dominance in the NAIA. “I think we have the talent to go very deep this year,” Feminis said. “I feel really good about this group. They have a great chemistry about them and they get along real well. At the [quarterback] position, the two guys who are battling for the job hang out together and that’s a neat thing to see.”
Saint Xavier’s week one opponent was the 2015 National Champion and fifth ranked Marian University Knights. It took coach Feminis until game day to decide who his signal caller would be after a very competitive offseason between Justin Hunnifort and Alex Martinez. The answer was transfer junior Justin Hunniford, who threw for 425 yards without a turnover and found the end zone on four different occasions. The biggest came on a 54-yard strike to sophomore wide out Chris Simmons, which turned out to be the game-winner.
The Cougars led 26-7 at halftime, but the Knights of Marian responded with 20 unanswered points to take a 27-26 lead with three minutes to play. With the game on the line, coach Feminis had confidence in his quarterback who was playing in his first career game as a Cougar. “As the game was going on, I felt very confident,” Feminis said. “Even when they took the lead there with three minutes left, I fully expected our offense to go down and at least get into field goal range to give us an opportunity to win. Lo and behold we get a touchdown instead.”
“It was a great night for everybody,” Feminis continued. “It was a great night for the University, for the students – they saw a great football game by two of the best at this level. I couldn’t be happier.”
Marian had a chance to respond with just under a minute-and-a half remaining in the contest, but the Cougar defense stepped up in a big way. On first-and-ten, senior Jeff Cesario penetrated the Knight backfield enough to get to the quarterback. Two plays later, Cesario sealed the deal after he recovered a loose ball thanks to junior Dimitri Joe’s strip sack with a little over a minute to play. Joe, was one of three Cougars who were recognized as Mid-States Football Association’s players of the week.
Saint Xavier worked hard for their 32-27 opening night upset over Marian. Defensively, the Cougars battled arguably the best offensive line in the country and managed to keep the game under control. Offensively, the story surrounded the man under center. Hunniford finished the night 24-36 for 425 yards with two passing touchdowns and two rushing scores.
“Justin’s a terrific player,” Feminis said following his quarterback’s performance. “For his first game and the opponent we were playing, he was lights out with both his arm and his legs.” Coach Feminis works an up-tempo style offense that looks to score quickly. For Hunniford, having a talented group of wide receivers allowed the Cougars to stick to their game plan.
Saint Xavier worked an empty backfield with a five-receiver set all night. That forced Marian to drop into coverage and spread their athletic secondary across the field. The Knights had to account for all five receivers, as well as running backs Mike Ivlow and Jamarri Watson. Nick Czeszewski and Harold Davis each racked up over 100 yards receiving, while Drey Devereaux and Chris Simmons combined for two touchdowns. Collectively, the wide receiving group impressed head coach Mike Feminis as well as team captain and fellow wide out, Mark Strbjak.
“I was really happy to see a lot of our younger, skilled receivers who didn’t get as much playing time a year ago step up,” Feminis said.
“We got a lot of young players who played last year with experience,” Strbjak added. “You could see how much they’ve grown. We have no individuals on that wide receiver group. This year I think we’ll be more diverse, which will help us in the long run.”
Looking ahead to the long run, coach Feminis believes other teams will have a tough time preparing for a talented Saint Xavier offense. “If I’m a defensive coordinator for the next nine teams we play, they can’t concentrate on one, two or three guys because everybody contributed,” Feminis noted. “We have weapons all over the place.”
The win marked the first victory over Marian since 2014. As a result, Saint Xavier will certainly climb the national rankings as one of the best teams in the country. Overall, the Cougars played a complete ball game. A lot of the credit goes to Hunniford due to his direct influence on the outcome of the game. However, Coach Feminis was able to watch the film and come away with the confidence in his team’s collective effort on the field. “For the people who were there, I think they were entertained,” Feminis said. “They saw the best of the NAIA. For our first game, I thought it was a very well-played game, a clean game with not a lot of turnovers. Both teams played well, but we were fortunate enough to make the last play.”