The La Salle program that Mansfield will be traveling this weekend to play is rooted deep in one of the hotbeds of this nation's best football.
Mansfield, the sixth-ranked team in our MIAA statewide poll, headed out on Thursday for a Friday night game, followed by a visit to the Notre Dame home opener against New Mexico on Saturday.
It will be a fun weekend for the Hornets (1-0), but a tall task to come away with a win against La Salle, which is 2-0 with 31-7 and 31-0 victories over in-state foes Lakota West and Mason, respectively.
Coming from the Greater Catholic League South, the Lancers are part of a four-team league that includes three other Cincinnati-area traditional powers: St. Xavier, Elder, and Archbishop Moeller.
Since 2000, St. Xavier, Elder, and Moeller have all won Division 1 state titles and been nationally ranked. Moeller's teams from the 1970s and 80s are still widely considered some of the best in state and national history. Urban Meyer began his coaching career at St. Xavier. La Salle competes in Division 2 and won three consecutive championships from 2014-'16.
"We're very proud of (the GCL)," La Salle coach Pat McLaughlin said. "There are only four teams in the league, which present a scheduling problem. We have three games scheduled every year. So, part of the reason we've got to go out of state is because we have three league games. . . . Combined, we have close to 20, probably about 20 state championships in just football."
The demographics of La Salle and the rest of the GCL are about what you'd expect. The teams draw from multiple communities, have great fan and alumni support, and take their football very seriously.
"I would say all four GCL schools are getting kids from the entire Cincinnati area," McLaughlin said. "There are no boundaries anymore. We probably have kids at La Salle probably from 30 or 40 different grade schools. X probably has kids from 50 different grade schools because they've got 1,600 kids. We've got 600. (St. Xavier is) the biggest in the league and we're the smallest."
For all four teams, it is tough to fill the schedule for a variety of reasons. There is the fact that teams in the area generally do not want to play them. The Ohio state athletics association does not allow students to miss a day of school to play an out-of-state game, so that restricts travel. Mostly, these GCL programs either play home OOS games or travel to nearby states.
All four GCL teams are playing an OOS foe this week. In addition to La Salle, St. Xavier is traveling to Mishawka, Ind. to face Penn. Elder is hosting Clearwater (Fla.) Academy. Lafayette (Ky.) is coming to Moeller.
"Our schedule is tough. It keeps getting tougher and tougher, which is fine. I didn't know anything about Mansfield before this game, for example. I'm sure Elder doesn't know anything about the Clearwater team that's coming up except for the fact that they're probably not coming here because they're a bad football team. I mean, you know?" McLaughlin said with a chuckle.
"(Mansfield) is probably coming down here, they've won state championships. The coach, (Mike) Redding, has been there for a long time. You can tell on film they play hard. For the most part, when we play out-of-state teams, which we all do, or we play (St. Edward) and (St. Ignatius) and Indy Cathedral, (the opponents are) pretty good."
McLaughlin has a pretty good team in his own right.
Starting running back Cam Porter is a Northwestern commit, and he will play some outside linebacker, as well.
"He's a big kid. He's probably 210," McLaughlin said. "(He's a) big, physical runner, typical of what you would find in the Big Ten, Big Ten-type of runner."
The offense is a spread scheme that is heavy on run-pass options, as you see a lot of places these days. Quarterback Zach Branam is only a junior, but a smart player, according to McLaughlin.
"He's getting the ball in the right spots. He's got a lot on his plate both pre-snap and post-snap in terms of reads. In the first two games he's done a good job of getting the ball where it needs to be."
He has nice weapons on the outside, as well.
"Overall, our skill kids are pretty good. We've got a couple defensive backs that have offers: Kentucky, Ohio State, Indiana-type kids," McLaughlin said. "Overall, our team speed is probably our biggest strength. We run around on defense. We're not the biggest, but we run around. Have good team speed on defense. Then, on offense, we spread them out, try to get guys in space and let them make plays."
The kicking game is also very good, as is the case with most teams in that area.
"Out kicker is committed to Ohio State, Jake Seibert," McLaughlin said. "He's good. He also plays receiver for us."
"One of the things all the GCL teams pride themselves on is special teams," he added. "We have to be solid in special teams. We put a ton of time in special teams. The punter at Ohio State (Drue Chrisman) is from (La Salle). The punter at Dayton is from here (Drew Nieman), and Jake's going to Ohio State. So we've been lucky on our end to have good kickers. But if everything's equal, we feel that special teams kind of give us the edge over some of the teams that we play now."
Although McLaughlin said it can be tough to gauge exactly how good the Hornets are based off film, he did have high praise for Mansfield coach Mike Redding's team.
"It's hard, just because, we talk about this as a staff, you just don't know the context of the team, and you don't know a ton of background," McLaughlin said. "But if I'm comparing it to somebody, I'm comparing them to the team we played last week, Mason, which is good. They're good. Mason's a good football team. Mansfield might be a little bit better. They've got No. 2. I'm not sure what his name is (Cincere Gill), the running back. He has the ball in his hands, he can score at any time. He's scary. No. 4 (Mike DeBolt), he's a great player, as well. He runs hard."
McLaughlin noticed the same type of kicking prowess in DeBolt that he sees with his program.
"I remember (DeBolt) last week, his (first kickoff) against (BC High), I think he kicked it through the uprights," McLaughlin noted. "I mean, he's got a great leg. So, it should be a good kicking battle, then, on Friday night."
Coming up with the right strategy, McLaughlin said, has been difficult, not just because Mansfield is an unfamiliar opponent, but because of how much Redding and Co. make a staff have to prepare for.
"They're doing some schemes," McLaughlin said. "They're countering. They're creating angles. Their coach does a good job pulling some of those (offensive linemen), which, if you're undersized, I think they've got a couple 210-, 215-pound kids on the line, pull those guys, block back, create angles. They're running some counter stuff. They're running some jet sweep stuff. They're running maybe a little bit of WIng-T, buck sweep type of things, which is all good stuff and what you should do.
"I'm on offense, but when our defense was looking at their offense, I think that we counted 50 formations. That's in one game and then two scrimmages. So they've been in 3x1 (three receivers on one side, one the other), 2x2 (two receivers on one side, two the other). They've been two tight ends, Wing-T. They're doing a lot of different stuff, so that makes it difficult to prepare for what they do."
Same deal for the other side of the ball.
"And then, defensively, they move around so much," he added. "It's not going to be easy for us just to get our hands on their defensive tackles because they're moving and slanting and standing a lot. So, that's going to be a challenge for us."
And a challenge from the Hornets across the board is what McLaughlin expects.
"Just one of the things I know about Mansfield, they're not going to be the biggest team that we play, but they play so hard. I mean, they just play hard, play after play after play after play. You can tell it on film that they trust each other. They believe in the system. They're very well-coached. They're not going to give up. So they're going to play from start to finish, and that's what we expect, you know, similar to a GCL team."