St. Charles football puts extra fun into winning

St. Charles' Rocco Ciocca tackles South Adams running back AJ Dull during a game Oct. 3 in Berne. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)
St. Charles players Gavin Groves, Henry O'Keefe and Adam Lee after a win over South Adams on Oct. 3 in Berne. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)
St. Charles coach Sam Talarico, Jr., center, talks with his players before a game Oct. 3 at South Adams. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)
St. Charles' Gavin Groves, right, tackles South Adams' Trey Schoch in a game Oct. 3 in Berne. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)
St. Charles defensive coordinator Gary Cornewell, right, talks to the team at halftime Oct. 3 in Berne. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)
St. Charles running back Joe Eddy, left, rushes for a touchdown against South Adams on Oct. 3 in Berne. Teammate Henry O'Keefe is at right. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of The News-Sentinel)

The impetus for this story is the St. Charles winning streak, 38 games over four-plus years with all different groups of eighth-grade football players.

The reason for the streak comes down to fun.

Coach Sam Talarico Jr. won’t stand for any of his players not enjoying the game of football. It’s work, yes. It’s hard work, yes. It’s demanding, yes. But he refuses to let it be a chore.

“I really preach that with the kids,” Talarico said. “I tell them if you’re ever not having fun, come up to me and say, ‘Coach Talarico, you’ve made this so it’s not fun anymore.’ ”

St. Charles player Adam Lee confirms the Talarico edict.

“He tells us not to say we’re not having fun if we’re running sprints or something like that,” Lee said. “But he wants to make sure we’re having fun. He wants everyone to stay into it. I like it a lot.”

Talarico, a partner at Barrett McNagny Attorneys at Law, took over as coach at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in 2012. The winning streak started with the team’s final game in 2013 and has included their Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) opponents in Fort Wayne and South Bend, and public middle-school opponents such as Carroll, Summit, Adams Central and South Adams.

The St. Charles team represents part of the Bishop Dwenger High School family in more ways than one.

Most of the players end up attending Dwenger, and many of them play football there. But there are also true family connections. About a dozen players are cousins in the Tippmann family. Several of the St. Charles players have older brothers who play or have played at Dwenger.

St. Charles’ lightning-quick back Henry O’Keefe – a threat for a breakaway score whenever he touches the ball – is the younger brother of Dwenger sophomore quarterback Patrick O’Keefe. Their dad, Joe O’Keefe, coaches the St. Charles offensive backs.

“I like the coaches and how we win a lot,” Henry O’Keefe said. “And I like the players I play with and our team and how we play. Coach (Talarico) says you should have fun playing sports.”

Not every St. Charles player ends up at Dwenger. Penn State University freshman wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer played at St. Charles and went on to star at Snider. But most St. Charles players play for the Saints in high school.

“All the players on the team are like a big family,” said St. Charles player Gavin Groves, whose older brother Braden is a sophomore defensive end.

Talarico’s staff is packed with coaches whose sons play or have played at Dwenger. The coaches are Gary Cornewell, Shane Lee, Joe O’Keefe, Brian Finley, Chad Cagnet, Chris Nelson, CJ Steigmeyer and Casey O’Boyle. Most of those coaches played at Dwenger in high school.

During the course of the games, those coaches regularly work in concert with Talarico, who is so meticulous with his plans that he prints color-coded, laminated play sheets for games – and for practices.

The St. Charles coaches demand attention and concentration from their players. Talarico is not a screamer. He’s more likely to pull a player aside, put his arm around him and explain what happened, and what needs to happen next.

St. Charles is 8-0 this season, with the potential for three games in the CYO tournament, which starts Sunday, and then possibly in the Diocesean Championship.

“It’s really about the type of kids we have at St. Charles and how one team just fed off the next team,” Talarico said. “They see the kids above them and how important it is keeping that tradition going.”

The key to the sustained success, especially considering players change every year (or two, if a seventh-grader plays on the eighth-grade team), is in the continuity of the players’ approach to the game.

“We have just been blessed with incredible types of kids at St. Charles,” Talarico said. “We’ve never had a game during this whole streak where the kids have shown up and given less than a full effort. Even if they were expected to win the game easily, they’ve always shown up and given 100 percent.”

The camaraderie of the team is evident watching them play.

“Our coaches are great,” player Adam Lee said. “They incorporate teamwork and they make it a good time, and they’re good coaches.”

Whether the wins or the fun came first, there’s no question they go hand-in-hand at St. Charles.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at