By DAVE O'SULLIVAN, Glory Days Magazine
You know when you wake up late for work, and you stub your toe on the bedpost, then the hot water doesn't work in the shower, and you spill your coffee on your dress shirt, all before walking out the front door? That's kind of how the 2017 football season started for Mainland Regional. The Mustangs suffered three season-ending injuries in the first half of the first game, including starting quarterback Dean Hall going down with a broken ankle. Eventually, running back Kobe Roberts became sort of a hybrid quarterback/tailback, and he did a great job with some tough running, but the offense was limited. Compounding the issue was Mainland's inability to get off the field on third down when on defense, and it all added up to a 1-9 season, identical to the 2016 campaign.
But Smith, his staff and his players have gotten a jolt of optimism, mostly due to the offseason dedication of a large group of incoming seniors and juniors. The Mustangs will have some big shoes to fill, most notably that of Roberts, two-way lineman Zach Donovan and runningback Ernest Howard (who transferred to Pleasantville), but Hall is back at 100 percent and they'll have a full season with little Joe Massari (5-7, 150), a quick, shifty and agile slot receiver.
Smith said the Mustangs' weight room was full nearly every day at 5:30 a.m., and proof of that is junior defensive end Brayden Pohlman, who put on nearly 40 pounds, bulking up to 220.
"The kids know the history of the program. It's been a while since we've had some success, almost 10 years, which goes by quickly because it seems like yesterday to me. But even though we had a couple of dark seasons there was a light at the end of the tunnel because you knew that if most of the kids stuck with it you'd had a big group coming back eventually, and that's what we have this year. We have a great core group of kids in back-to-back classes who have really worked hard and dedicated themselves to get this thing right. You always recharge in the offseason, but when you see that happen — and happen consistently — we never had that dip in numbers during all the offseason workouts. It was consistent the entire time, from December all the way through June, and the kids were really into in the weight room. The proof is in the test performances and the way they have reshaped their bodies," Smith said. "Injuries are a key and staying healthy is paramount. I never went through anything before in my life like we did last year, where you lose three guys in the first half of the first game for the entire season. It alters a lot of what you do, unfortunately, because it's high school football and you're not super deep at all the positions. You're moving people around to try to give yourself a chance, but it's not really the ideal situation. If we can stay healthy through this preseason and keep it going, good things can happen.
"It's our second year in this system and it's like the kids never stopped," he added. "When we came out and did our passing stuff in June and our July sessions, we're light years ahead of where we were last year. We're fortunate that we have two very intelligent quarterbacks who have taken it up a notch."
"It feels great. I know the team is with me, and they have been throughout the whole thing. I feel the best I ever have and I know we're way better as a group. I can't wait. This is the biggest thing I've been focusing on in my life and I know everybody is on the same page. We have goals, and we're going to meet them," Hall said of being healthy again. "The feeling out here is great. It's been the best camp since I've been here at Mainland. The energy is high, the attitude is great and everybody is on the same page. We have one goal, and that is to win as many games as we can and get as far as we can in the postseason."
Hall is getting plenty of competition at quarterback from Zach Graziotto, but coach Smith said the increase in competition at all positions gives him hope that the Stangs can pull themselves up and out of the doldrums they've been trapped in the past two years.
"Almost at every position we have competition. We have that 1A guy, and there is a 1B guy right behind him. You can tell in practice, the competition level is so much more intense and it's making everybody better," Smith said. "Our ones aren't really going against twos, they are going against our other ones because we don't have a lot of guys going both ways. We're able to get that one against one competition. It's not like we're going against a scout team that's a true JV squad that you can push around."
"I feel like we've always had a chemistry and a bond. We've played since we were little kids, all-stars, we always knew who each other were. I feel like with their four years together, and them welcoming me as a teammate, I feel like we have built a chemistry that's going to help us go far," Massari said. "We've put so much time and effort into it this offseason and I feel like that's going to pay off."
Mainland has been putting a lot of emphasis on the defense, which will be spearheaded by linebacker Sonny Fraser, who may be quiet and a bit unknown at this point, but he's certainly a guy to watch this year. He's 5-11 and up to nearly 200 pounds this year, can play sideline-to-sideline, and bring the thunder.
"Every day at practice we have a situation period where we're working on getting off the field on third downs, third-down situations, and just getting off the field (and turning the ball over to the offense)," he said.
Traditionally, Mainland has had one of the best student sections in South Jersey, and the players hope that will continue as they work to make a return to the state playoffs, which is a real possibility. With the two-year realignment of the West Jersey Football League, Mainland is now in a division with Ocean City, Absegami, Oakcrest, Bridgeton and Egg Harbor Township, all of whom are in varying stages of rebuilding projects.
"It's so fun running out on the field. You run right at them when we come onto the field, and that really gets you pumped up," Fraser said of the "Corral Crazies."
"We have a great group of Corral Crazies over here, and that energy, we have to get that into football. We've had such a good student section — I was in it when I was a little kid and I remember watching that '08 championship and we want to bring that energy back. The basketball team had a great season, and I know they are going to come out. The students can't wait and the energy is coming," Hall added. "We've had a lot of doubters and that just motivates us to prove them wrong. This division is wide open. We took our licks the last few years, but we have almost 40 returning juniors and seniors, and now is our time."
In true head coaching fashion, Smith is tempering the preseason excitement just a bit. He knows the Mustangs have to worry right now about simply winning the season opener before any talk of state playoffs enters the conversation.
"We're just worried about that first game. We have to build success and momentum. Once that happens, it can steamroll. That stuff will take care of itself as the season goes along, we're just worried about Overbrook right now. We've had a lot of positive things happen in preseason on both sides of the ball. We just have to stay healthy and get everybody a lot of reps," he said. "I have a leadership committee of about 10 kids and we meet throughout the school year once a week and we'll discuss a lot of the team matters. It's an open discussion, they tell me what they feel and I tell them what I feel. One thing that was common among all of us is accountability. I told them our coaching staff has to be more accountable, and the kids understand they have to be more accountable for their peers, making sure they're pushing themselves in practice each and every rep. When you're number is called, you have to go 120 percent."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays