Five seasons ago, head coach Mike Feminis and his 13-1 Cougars were hoisting the National Championship trophy having just beaten NAIA powerhouse Carroll College (Montana). It solidified the small college from 103rd and Pulaski in Chicago as a yearly force to be reckoned with in the NAIA. On that team was a freshman named Clayton Fejedelem who played a huge part in the final drive of the game. Fejedelem, originally from Lemont, eventually transferred to the University of Illinois and was drafted by the Bengals in the seventh round of this year’s draft. Since that National Championship, the Cougars have been to two National Semifinals and have never fallen out of the national top-25 rankings.
The 10th ranked Cougars don’t exactly start with a cupcake in their opener to the 2016 season. They’ll take on top ranked and reigning National Champions Marian University in Indianapolis this Saturday night. Marian dominated the opener last season, beating the Cougars 45-13. SXU will hope for a different start to the season this year with a good mix of returning stars and new hopefuls.
Leading the way on offense will be senior QB John Rhode. Rhode, who played his high school football at Montini Catholic, spun 24 touchdown passes last year while averaging 304 passing yards per game. Fellow senior Stephen Simms will slide back into his flexible role next to Rhode as the main target in the SXU offensive attack. Last year Simms ranked 3rd in the country in all purpose yardage with 1,976 rushing, receiving, and return yards. Local products Mike Ivlow (JR, Joliet Catholic), who averaged five yards per carry last season, and Jamarri Watson (FR, Oak Park-River Forest) will help Simms hold down the backfield. The receiving core is a bit green outside of Simms, but London Covington (JR, Hillcrest High School) and Harold Davis (FR, Joliet Catholic) will be among the newcomers looking to impress.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior linebacker Michael Lafenhagen (Tolono Unity High School) will look to improve on his 82 tackle season. Freshman standout Dmitri Joe (Nazareth Academy) wrapped up 50 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2015 and also led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss. The Cougars will also look for standout contributions from players like Omar Salazar (SO, Plainfield East), Derrick Hosselton (JR, Manteno), and Josh Hettiger (FR, Richards).
The road back to the National Championship for St. Xavier starts in Indianapolis. An upset over the defending champs would go a long way in a schedule that only boasts two preseason nationally ranked teams. If you’re interested in supporting the Cougars, you can catch their home games on campus at 103rd and Pulaski in Chicago. They host five games, the first on September 3rd at 6:00 PM versus 14th ranked University of St. Francis (IL).