It's easy for a high school football program to talk about turning things around from a couple of sub-par seasons and piling up enough wins to make it back to the state playoffs. It's much more difficult to undertake the process, the grind, that it takes to actually accomplish that. But Egg Harbor Township coach Kevin Stetser, who is entering his fifth season with the Eagles, believes he has the right guys in place, with the right attitudes and work ethic, to start putting some distance between the Eagles and two-win seasons.
EHT started out last season 0-8 — after a brutal three-game stretch to start the season that featured big-time opponents such as Vineland and Millville — but the Eagles won their final two games, including beating rival Mainland Regional on Thanksgiving, and coach Stetser said that good vibe carried over through the offseason and into this summer's training camp. He also has some great examples to point to from last year's squad, including running back Maurice Sherrod, who made the Taliaferro All-Star Classic and plans to play at New Haven, linebacker Yvandy Rigby, who has committed to Temple after spending this coming year at a post-secondary school, as well as guys such as Jefferson Dejean and Xavier Johnson (Rowan and Kean, respectively).
"I'm cautiously optimistic. With what we've been through the last couple of years, you want to make sure you are what you are before you jump out there and say it, but it is a much better feel. I know some of the talk is the change in the culture and the shift from some of the things we were dealing with, but there's also some phenomenal kids out of last year's group that helped establish what we want to do. Some of these younger classmen had some seniors to look to last year to say, hey, these guys are buying in, these guys are doing what the coaches are telling them, supporting the team and working hard, and those guys are off with college scholarships to go play football," Stetser said. "I want this on the record, Sherrod and Rigby — along with some other guys — but those two young men in particular, when we do dig ourselves out of this and do start going in the right direction consistently, they are cornerstones of what we are doing. They are great young men, worked extremely hard, were respectful, checked their egos at the door when it came to grinding and working, and (the younger guys) saw that. We were 2-8 last year, but we won our last two games, we played a lot of underclassmen toward the end of the season and Thanksgiving was a big win. Believe it or not, coming out of a 2-8 season, we were able to catch a little momentum at the end of the year."
EHT has some talent returning on its roster this season, including seniors LB/TE Thomas Decker, RB Luis Rivera-Turrell, RB/DB Devon Parker, WR Jordan Barnes, quarterbacks Sal Paschall and Steven Ramos, and junior RB Woodrow McKenzie. The Eagles also will be in a new division in the West Jersey Football League, and will be grouped in with Mainland, Ocean City, Absegami, Oakcrest and Bridgeton, and their nonconference schedule includes tough opponents such as Atlantic City in Week Zero, Kingsway, Washington Township and Cherry Hill East.
"I think we've come together more as a team and a unit. I think we can do a better (than we have in recent years). We have two good quarterbacks and some good running backs. We're trying to do better than last season," McKenzie said. "Fourth quarter. We have to keep grinding into the fourth quarter and not giving up in the beginning of the game. We have to keep pushing."
"To be honest, our main focus here is to be tough. This might not be the most talented team we've had, but it's the toughest. I'm really proud of the guys, a lot of them are working really hard, and I think things are really looking up," Decker said. "(The key) has been everybody getting into the everyday routine of it. In the past, we've had guys missing days here and there. You have to have everybody here every single day working hard, and that's what we've had. It's the first time we've really had guys buy in (fully) in a long time. We're looking to turn it up this weekend (in a scrimmage) against Vineland. I think we should do really well, we're prepared."
"Decker is another kid who has eyes on playing at the next level and he got to see the actions (of guys like Rigby and Sherrod) are what get you to college and get you what you want," Stetser said. "There are other examples, too, with Trey, Devon Barker, Luis Rivera. Our linemen up front are a good group and there is no ego with them. They just want to work and get better. There's a better feel, but the bottom line is we have to start getting it done on the field on Friday nights."
Stetser said a big focus of his last year, and one that will continue into this year, is consistently keeping the right kind of attitude, stocking the roster with character guys, and helping his players understand that if they want success — and if they want fellow students and the community to support them — they have to be willing to not only put the work in, but perform up to their abilities when it counts.
"It's more than just winning. If you have the right type of kid in your program they tend to be supported more, and I do feel like we have those kids. The school wants us to win, we just haven't been doing it. When we had those two wins at the end of the season (the students and faculty) were loving us, but you have to give them something to cheer for. I think we're starting to do that," he said. "There was a point in time last year with about four or five games left — the first three weeks were what they were — but we played better football and there was a fundamental change among the kids. They looked at the seniors last year and said, 'that's what's getting us in the right direction.' And the majority of the kids went that way at the end of the year and have continued with that. Guys like Rigby, Sherrod, Xavier Johnson and Jefferson Dejean stayed around the program in the offseason, they lifted with us. Xavier's going off to Kean and Jefferson to Rowan, and we'd come to work out at 7:30 a.m. and they'd already be in a full sweat. That vibe started to catch on last year. Kids want to see results, and they want to win, and these kids are starting to understand that you can get recognition (and college offers) here if you work hard.
"This group understands the process. It's hard for everybody to lose like we have, but they are believing what they are seeing because they got to see some good things. It's becoming real to them," Stetser added. "You have kids who are coming out of our program, where we've struggled to get wins, with some nice scholarships because they did what they were supposed to do. There were examples for these kids to see and they took to them."
"We need to come out a lot stronger (at the start of games). I felt like that was a problem last year, we would come out kind of weak and then turn it up in the middle of the game and into the second half. Last year, against Prep, we started getting beat up a little bit in the first quarter, but they didn't score off us the rest of the game and we were able to close that lead," Decker said. "Our thing this year is, we really have to come out in the first quarter hitting people. We really need to turn it up as soon as we get out here, and I think we need to get some wins early in the season to get the school behind us, and, obviously, early wins will boost everyone's confidence. Confidence is the key here because I think we have everything (in place), now we just have to get some wins and build some confidence. If we can build some confidence, I think we'll be good this year."
"Just like (Decker) said, I've been out here since freshman year and it doesn't feel good to lose, but I feel like if we can come together, we'll be good this year," added McKenzie.
There are 20 seniors on this year's roster, and they are intent on turning things around at Silver Eagle Stadium.
Said Decker, "This is my last year of high school football, and I'm excited. We're looking to make this the best year of football we've had yet. It's obvious we've had losing records the past three years and I've been playing varsity since I was a freshman, so I've experienced three straight losing seasons. Nothing would feel better than going out on top this year, making the state playoffs."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays