Passolano praised for playing Rice

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He could have followed the simple path of some of the other successful local football programs and scheduled an inferior foe Friday to begin the season.

You know, play a Little Village or any number of Chicago Public School programs that pretty much guarantee a victory to start the season.

Shepard coach Dominic Passolano, however, prefers to wear “Big Boy” shorts and schedule a team some of his public school peers wouldn’t dare: Catholic League Blue power Brother Rice.

That’s right, Shepard opens its season Friday night with a trip to Rice.

“I’ve had people say ‘I’m nuts,” Passolano said. “No, I’m not. The kids want to be in a game with a playoff atmosphere. They’re excited to play in front of a big crowd and against a Catholic League program. What some people forget is that playing high school sports is the kids’ experience. This is what they want, and this is a game they’re going to remember a long time.”

Precisely.

I know what the critics are thinking: Shepard’s going to remember playing Brother Rice all right. Rice is going to crush the Astros.

Rice, with home-field advantage and coach Brian Badke celebrating his first game in charge, is the favorite.

But instead of a blowout, I see a competitive game decided in the final quarter.

For those of you who remember the 2000 season, Bremen, a little Class 4A squad, buried Brother Rice 25-0 in Mount Greenwood.

Blowout or not, Passolano should be given props for scheduling Rice. Not only because the Crusaders are a Catholic Blue power but a program that actively competes for top junior high players in Shepard’s back yard.

Generally, public school coaches avoid that crossover conflict. Their rationale is that if they lose to the Catholic League team, they’re also going to lose prospects to them.

Passolano isn’t concerned about that.

“We can cry about the recruiting part of it, but you’re not going to get anything done by crying about it,” said Passolano, a Providence graduate. “There’s always been that private school/public school defiance. This is a good experience for our kids and a good way for us to promote our program. We’re trying to build our program.”

Passolano has done a very good job of that, guiding Shepard to an 18-9 mark in the regular season and three consecutive playoff appearances in his three years on the job.

The Astros lost to another Catholic Blue power, St. Rita, 35-7 in a Class 7A first-round playoff game in 2011. The Astros turned that experience into a motivating tool during the offseason.

“All summer, the kids were motivated knowing we start the season with Rice,” Passolano said. “The Catholic League is physical and it’s a high level of play. Life is about challenges and the kids are excited about this challenge.”

I’m sure if the Astros lose to Rice and finish 4-5, Passolano will be chastised for not scheduling a weaker opponent who would have guaranteed victory.

Well, he shouldn’t.

You know the reward that generally accompanies a 5-4 mark? A first-round playoff thrashing by a likely No. 1 seed.

Win or lose, the experience of playing Rice to start the season will be special for Shepard’s players.

Passolano, who won multiple state championships as a player at Providence, isn’t satisfied with one-and-done playoff experiences.

He wants to build a program that can compete with the best.

The Astros are making strides.

And if he can show an ability to beat Rice and other top-notch programs, the talent in the area will follow.

As it is, two players — Ramzi Berryhill and Devon Landfair — transferred to Shepard from Mount Carmel during the summer.

Both will start — Berryhill at receiver and Landfair at running back — and join a nucleus that includes quarterback Jimmy McClinton, receiver Londell Lee, punter Tommy Eyer and running back Larenzo Lashley.

“We have to step it up Friday,” Passolano said. “We have to have a playoff focus. This is Year 4 for me and we feel we’re at a point where we can compete with a team like Rice.”

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