By Joseph Santoliquito

Philadelphia, PA (CBS)— Since he arrived as head football coach at St. Joseph’s Prep, Gabe Infante’s goal has always been to shed a national spotlight on the program.

A major step was taken this past season, when the Hawks won their first PIAA Class AAAA state championship in school history. Another step will emerge this coming season.

Previous years the Hawks dabbled in traveling. This year, St. Joe’s Prep will open with two-time Illinois state champion Mt. Carmel on Sunday, August 31, at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill. Ensuing weeks will feature the Hawks traveling to St. Joseph’s Regional in Montvale, NJ, and possibly Cleveland, Ohio, to face Ohio and national powerhouse St. Ignatius.

St. Joe’s Prep is in talks with St. Ignatius and nothing is definitive yet. But with or without St. Ignatius, the Hawks will play the most challenging schedule of any team in Pennsylvania.

North Penn and Archbishop Wood opted not to renew their contracts with Prep, opening up dates for the in-demand Hawks, who will return a good nucleus from the 2013 state championship team, including John Reid, the best returning player in Pennsylvania.

The schedule is very ambitious. It will be incredibly grueling. But there is no questioning that what Infante is doing works. The Hawks were blasted by Don Bosco 42-0 their second game last season. By Dec. 15 in the state title game, they were a far different—and far better—team when they squashed previously undefeated juggernaut Pittsburgh Central Catholic, 35-10.

The Hawks finished 12-3 last season, losing to Don Bosco, Archbishop Ryan (which beat two state champions, Wood and Prep last year) and a meaningless game against Malvern Prep late in the season.

“For me, it doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, what matters is that we continue to improve and the only way to improve is to play the best teams we can play,” Infante said. “We can start next year 0-6. But our kids will get better and they’ll be ready when we play in the [Philadelphia Catholic League] and defend the state title. We lost three games last year and won the whole thing. Think about it, how many state champions lost a game 42-0 last year? I really believe we were able to win in the end because of the schedule that we had played. We’re going to follow that.”

Infante said a great deal was gained from the Don Bosco loss. Internally, Prep never viewed the setback the way most did looking from the outside in. The Hawks were still a young, developing team. Infante had to find who could play and who couldn’t, who was able to step up in a pressure cooker and how his team would respond to adversity.

“It’s funny, because after that game, everyone forgot about us, took us off the map, said we were overrated, all of that stuff,” Infante said. “Everyone else made excuses for us, but we didn’t. Guys had to be held accountable. They were. I told our team that I gave them a gift, and the gift was playing the best team I could think of that could get us. I wanted to seek out the most hostile environment I could put my team in, aside from bringing them to Alabama to like a Hoover High, to see how they’d respond. I believed it helped. If there is a way to turn a 42-0 loss into a positive, I think we wrote the book on it. I wanted to continually test our kids.”

Infante’s tests accelerated the growth of a young team. Now the Hawks will begin next season as the No. 1 team in Pennsylvania and possibly begin the year nationally ranked.

After opening with Mt. Carmel, the Hawks will host Don Bosco, possibly at Widener, PPL Park or Villanova, the first week of September.

Prep is in discussions with St. Ignatius for the following week, then a trip to Montvale, NJ to play St. Joseph’s Regional. The Malvern Prep game, which had been scheduled late in the season in past years, will be moved up to September or early October.

When the Hawks open against Mt. Carmel, Donovan McNabb’s alma mater, St. Ignatius will also be playing that same weekend at Toyota Park. There’s also a possibility the games will be nationally televised.

Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.