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Vineland head coach Dan Russo has restored the pride to his alma mater.

Vineland waking up the echoes

09/11/2017, 6:00am EDT
By Kevin Callahan, SJSD

The Fighting Clan is one of the top teams in South Jersey - again

Barry Joseph, now 84, grew up in Vineland during the depression, As a six-year-old, he remembers getting a lift, though, going to most of Vineland High School’s football games during the 1939 season, walking through town with his father, Art, a prominent Cumberland County judge.

“I remember going to the last game against New Brunswick and Vineland had not been scored upon going into the game,” Joseph said about the final game of the 1939 season. “New Brunswick scored nine points, they were good, but Vineland beat them.

“They went 9-0 that season.”

Joseph said there was a buzz around Vineland about the 1939 team

“You could feel it lift the town,” Joseph said from his Medford home last week. “I felt the day of those games, whatever problems you were having disappeared. The Depression disappeared. The excitement of walking to that stadium was palpable.

“Those were our heroes.”

One Cape Atlantic League coach, a veteran of many years on the sidelines, says he hears and feels a buzz about Vineland football again. He said he didn't know if there was anyone else who could turn the Vineland program around like Dan Russo.

Russo, who graduated in 1993, was a former star tight end at Vineland.

“It's exciting, I feel like we took one of the bottom five programs in South Jersey and, with everyone supporting us, we've turned into a top-five program,” Russo said.

Indeed, Vineland enters the inaugural South Jersey Sports Digest Football Top 10 as a top five program, sitting at No. 5 behind Holy Spirit, Timber Creek, Millville and Woodrow Wilson. The Fighting Clan won its opener Friday Night at home 27-8 over Bridgeton.

Last year, Russo returned the fight back into the Fighting Clan as Vineland went 8-2 for just its third winning season since 1991 with a 6-2-1 record. In 2003, Vineland was 7-3.

“Things are definitely getting better here,” said Russo, who is going into his fifth season on the Vineland sideline. “It was as bad as it could be.”

 Last year, the Fighting Clan streaked to 7-0 for their best start since 2003, which was their last winning season. The eight wins last year were the program’s most since 1984.

“I tell the kids that last year was a good season, but this year we want to have a great season,” Russo said.

Russo, 43, felt his team was very close to making a playoff push last season, but dropped a last minute 29-27 decision to Howell at home.

“Unfortunately, we played St. Augustine the week before and we kind of beat each other up, so both of us kind of limped into the playoffs,” Russo said.

“We set an all-time school record for points in a season with 395, it was 292,” Russo added. “Offensively, we don't run it up on teams, we get the points we need and I sub right away.

“We could've scored a lot more.”

However, the number that makes Russo and Vineland alumni like Joseph so optimistic about this season is 105 – which is the number of players in the program.

“Last year, the JV was 8-1 and the freshmen were 6-2-1 and the varsity was 8-2, so the pipeline is full,” Russo said. “We aren't going to have to rebuild anymore. As they say, we are just going to reload.

 “We are three or four deep at every position.”

Russo starts separate offensive and defensive lines. No one pulls double duty.

“During a scrimmage the other day, it was so cool seeing my offensive linemen sitting on the bench with their helmets off and drinking water,” Russo said.

Russo credits the support of the community for helping to restore the program.

“It wasn’t easy, there was a lot of negativity and a lot of kids were going to different schools,” Russo said. “Luckily for me, people have slowly bought in and they saw some improvement.”

Russo said that many of his former teammates live in town still and their children are playing now in Vineland’s two youth programs.

“It's a really good situation for us at the high school because I had 45 freshmen come out, I couldn't take anymore,” Russo said. “We had to get 30 new helmets and 30 new shoulder pads.

“We had to turn people away.”

The program isn’t just growing in numbers.

“It’s really taking off and people are buying in,” Russo said. “The facilities have had huge upgrades, we're scheduled to get artificial grass and a new press box and the locker room is being upgraded now.”

Russo not only has depth, but star power in seniors Isaih Pacheco, Nihym Anderson and Noah Sansalone. All three have committed to Division I programs – Pacheco to Rutgers, Anderson to Maryland and Sansalone to Bucknell.

“Things are going well, we just got to stay humble,” Russo stressed. “We appreciate the support and we’ll just keep building.”

Russo, a former Division III All-American tight end at The College of New Jersey, is a health and physical education teacher at the high school.

“I was very fortunate to get the job, it's all about timing and there wasn't a lot of people lined up for the job,” Russo said.

Russo has made the most of the opportunity because of how hard he has worked. His nickname is 24/7 because he is everywhere.

He can’t travel back in time though.

“It was a long off-season for us as well,” Russo said. “I couldn't get out of my mind the Howell game, it was disappointing,"

Vineland has made seven playoff appearances since the system started and has lost all seven games.

“We have a lot of positives, but the negative is we lost a playoff game,” Russo said. “The guys are very hungry, they are also very humble and are staying in the moment and we we’re just taking it a week at a time."

The Fighting Clan plays in the stacked West Jersey Football League Continental Division with St. Augustine, Millville, Atlantic City, Egg Harbor and Bridgeton. Vineland also competes in the largest school playoffs - South Jersey Group 5.

“We played some quality teams and we played some teams that are rebuilding, but hey I know how it feels,” Russo said. “We respect our opponents, whoever we are playing that week.”

Vineland’s Gittone Stadium, which is behind the old high school, was built the year Joseph was born in 1933.

“I haven’t lived in Vineland since 1950, but when someone ask me where I’m from, I tell them Vineland,” Joseph said proudly. “I’ve never been from any other place.

 “I’m excited for them,” he continued about the football program. “I’m excited for them because they really didn’t do much for many years.”

Joseph remains active on alumni reunion committees. His former classmates could have a lot to talk about after this football season.

“Listening to how they have reorganized kind of brings it all back,” said Joseph, as if walking to a game again through the streets of Vineland with his father. “It’s a resurgence of pride.”

South Jersey Sports Digest Football Top 10

  1. Holy Spirit              (1-0)
  2. Timber Creek         (2-0)
  3. Millville                  (1-0)
  4. Woodrow Wilson    (1-0)
  5. Vineland                 (1-0)
  6. Cherokee               (1-0)
  7. St. Augustine          (1-1)
  8. Camden Catholic    (1-0)
  9. St. Joseph              (1-0)

   10. Delsea                  (0-1)

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