At 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, St. Xavier’s Tionte McDaniel has often felt overlooked.

That’s all changing now for the sophomore safety and Thornton graduate. Last week, McDaniel was named the Mid-States Football Association Midwest League Defensive Player of the Year.

“It really meant a lot to me to get some recognition,” McDaniel said. “I’ve been looking to get some since high school. I was expecting to get all-state in high school and never did. People underestimate me because of my size sometimes, and I had to prove myself.”

McDaniel, a speedster who’s also a sprinter on the St. Xavier track and field team, is a big part of why the Cougars are allowing just 21.5 points per game, posting their best defensive numbers since 2012.

No. 8 St. Xavier (10-1) will travel to Sioux City, Iowa, to take on No. 3 Morningside (12-0) in a NAIA quarterfinal set for noon Saturday.

The teams last met in a first-round playoff game in 2015, when Morningside pulled off a wild 75-69 quadruple-overtime win over the Cougars.

“All those guys who were here and lost that game really want revenge,” McDaniel said. “I’m going to go out there and do my best to help them get it.”

McDaniel ranks second on the team with 78 tackles and has an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.

“He’s just always around the football,” St. Xavier coach Mike Feminis said. “You watch film, and he’s always there. He has a nose for the ball.”

Feminis hasn’t been surprised to see McDaniel make such a big impact. While recruiting McDaniel at Thornton, where he also played running back, Feminis felt he possessed NCAA Division I-level talent.

“He was definitely one of the top recruits we were able to land,” Feminis said. “We really felt fortunate that he fell to us, really only because of his size. He’s lightning fast and he’s a playmaker. He’s a hard hitter, too. He has no regard for his body.”

McDaniel enjoys catching an opponent off guard with a big hit.

“Guys don’t expect it from me because I’m small,” he said. “When I hit someone hard, guys get stunned. I’ll see them start to back off a little and get cautious. It’s a lot of fun.”

All season, McDaniel has had a knack for stepping up big in tight games, making a key late tackle or breaking up a pass on a vital play.

“I always have the mentality that I refuse to lose,” he said. “In the fourth quarter, I have to step it up. I have a will to win and I’m going to find a way.”

McDaniel feels he’s found the perfect spot at St. Xavier, a destination he initially hesitated to choose.

“Coach Fem has been so supportive of me,” he said. “I waited until after track season my senior year to decide where I was going to go, and he kept that scholarship open for me that whole time.

“I waited to see what other offers I’d get, hoping I’d get Division I looks. But this was the right place for me.”

Steve Millar is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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