Forget flying under the radar. Early on this season, Iona Prep junior running back Shaquille Townsend was struggling to be recognized as a blip on the team’s radar. Fumbling issues, a lack of production and a hard time taking in Iona’s complex offense contributed to the problems.
“It wasn’t really like he was flying under the radar, he was below the radar,” Iona Prep coach Vic Quirolo said with a smile.
What a difference a few weeks made. Flash forward to Sunday and there’s Townsend rushing for 242 yards to help his team to a 24-20 in the CHSFL playoffs. Suddenly, Townsend has gone from below the radar to a stalwart in Iona’s offense.
As Iona Prep heads into Saturday’s CHSFL semifinal matchup and ESPNNewYork.com's Game of the Week against top-seeded and undefeated St. Anthony’s at 8 p.m., it will be critical for Townsend to keep us his high level of play.
Townsend has rushed for 454 yards over his team’s last three games, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, and he will have to keep up his hot play against St. Anthony's as quarterback Mario Biaggi III is suffering from a right ankle sprain.
“It’s been great knowing my team is behind me,” Townsend said. “The offensive line has been stepping up and we’re working hard in practice to keep doing what we have to do be doing to keep winning.”
Quirolo acknowledges that Iona Prep’s up-tempo spread offense can be tough to pick up at first for running backs. The responsibilities change from play to play, from where the back is supposed to line up to the different terminology. Players have to be instinctual on the field, instead of thinking about every little detail of the offense.
Townsend admits that learning the team’s playbook was hard, ranging from learning different pass protections and where to correctly line up on different plays. It took time, including the use of review sheets and practicing at home, as well as some calls to last seasons’ starting back Sidney Weston, but eventually Townsend settled into the offense.
“After a while I started doing it over and over and it started becoming second nature,” Townsend said.
It all seemed to come together starting on Oct. 22 against Stepinac. Townsend had one of his strongest games of the season, rushing for 132 yards in a road win. He followed that up with an 80-yard performance against St. Anthony’s before leading into last week’s heroics.
With Biaggi knocked out of game with a sprained right ankle, the Gaels turned to Townsend, who had an illness on that day. They kept handing him the ball, one handoff after another. He ultimately carried the ball a season-high 29 times and responded with the best game of his career as he tallied 242 times and hauled in a touchdown pass to help his team escape with a win.
“It’s great. I’ve played with him my whole life and it’s great to see him peak and play to his potential,” teammate Justin Combs said of Townsend’s emergence. “Sunday he was sick so he really couldn’t play to his full potential and that show how dynamic he is that he can do that when he’s sick. Imagine what he can do when he’s not sick and he’s healthy?”
As the four seed in the playoffs, Iona Prep faces an uphill challenge against St. Anthony’s Sunday and it will need Townsend to perform like he has the past few weeks. Quirolo went as far to say that Townsend is going to need his “A-game” for the team to be successful. The junior is ready.
“I think this is probably the biggest game of the year for me,” Townsend said. “Just trying to get to the championship and knocking them out.”