By DAVE O'SULLIVAN
Most high school coaches like to temper the expectations for their team in the preseason, giving you the tried-and-true "we're taking it one day at a time" cliche. Ocean City football coach Kevin Smith is embracing high expectations. This is what he's been striving for, a team that expects to win and compete for state playoff berths — and ultimately be in the conversation for a South Jersey Group 3 championship.
Last fall, the Red Raiders made a return to the state playoffs after a long absence, and played tough against a very skilled Delsea Regional team before ultimately falling in the opening round. Still, Ocean City finished with seven wins after a thrilling goal-line stand to cap off a Thanksgiving Day victory over Pleasantville. They may have lost some serious talent in the form of guys such as Harry Pfiefle, Issac Robertson, Liam Bergman, Victor Mahar and Jimmy Rice, but there is plenty of quality football players returning, and, more importantly, a winning attitude and an expectation to compete for a division title.
Ian Aungst, a senior, steps in at quarterback to fill the void left by Pfeifle, who was a fearless runner and as tough as they come, but the offense will have a little different look this year as Aungst is more of a passer and has some pretty good receivers returning, including baseball star Brandon Lashley, and Kevin King, a track star, has been impressing coaches as a running back/receiver so far this preseason.
"(Winning) has created a level of expectation. These guys expect to win. In the last 25 games, we're 17-8 and (last year) the freshman team was 7-2, so you have a bunch of guys in the program now who have won, and expect to win. Five years ago we hoped we could get to this point, and now it's a completely different mentality. That's where we are," Smith said. "I don't think it's unrealistic to say that we should set (the playoffs) as our goal, and that should be our level of expectation. I have a coaching staff that is all on the same page as far as that goes, and that makes your life so much better when you have seven or eight assistants who all feel the same way you do, are all about the kids and are all positive energy. The coaching staff enforces that every day, and we have kids who are good kids and buy into that."
"I feel like we are just going to pick up right where we left off. We have a couple seniors coming back, like Brandon Lin, and I'm inexperienced, but I think we have a bunch of young guys who are ready to attack, be good, and just do what the coaches tell us to do," Aungst said.
Ocean City will lean heavily on its defense early on until the offense can get comfortable with its new look, and the Red Raiders have senior linebacker Brandon Lin — the team's best tackler the past two seasons — spearheading that effort.
"He's our leading tackler for two years in a row right now. He's a serious kid who loves to play football, and if you can build your program around a kid like that I think you'll be alright," Smith said.
"We're young, but our main goal is the playoffs. We have a lot of new kids on defense. We have some returning starters, like Austin (Green), Brandon Lashley and myself who are all three-year starters," Lin said. "We're all really confident in ourselves. We know our playbook and we're ready to go."
The division Ocean City will play in this year in the West Jersey Football League includes teams such as Mainland, Egg Harbor Township, Absegami, Oakcrest and Bridgeton — all of which are in varying stages of a rebuilding process, which means the title is pretty much up for grabs.
"We have a good mix of returning letter guys, a good senior class, and a strong sophomore class. The freshman team was good (last year) so we have a bunch of those guys who are going to see playing time. I just think we're scrappy and play together with a lot of energy. We don't have any guys who are going to jump out at you, Division I guys; we don't have a lot of guys who are going to get a lot of headlines, but we have a lot of tough football players," Smith said. "Every game on our schedule can go either way, so we're going to have to be a team that doesn't hurt ourselves. We're going to be in a lot of close games, so we're going to have to win a lot of close games. We're going to have to be a good second-half team, we're going to have to be in great shape in order to be a good second-half team. Every team in this division should have the mindset that they can win this division, so there are going to be a lot of close games. It's going to be exciting."
Aungst said "Raider Nation" should expect to see much more passing than they saw last year with that backfield of Pfeifle, Robertson and Bergman. It wasn't out of the ordinary to see the Red Raiders run the ball north of 35 times per game last year, but this year there should be much more balanced in the attack.
"It's going to be more of a passing-heavy type offense, more of a West Coast; Harry was a good runner, I feel my strengths are more passing and spreading the ball around. I think we're going to be pretty good. Our line is different, but they are stepping up and making holes for the running backs and our wide receiving corps is strong and running good routes," Aungst said. "We just have to do what our coaches tell us to do, every day just come and work and be ready to for the game. On defense, we have to stop them from getting into the end zone, and on offense we just have to be patient. Our defense is really good, so if our offense can put it in (to the end zone) a couple times, we'll be pretty good."
"We're going to miss Harry's running, but we have a good group of receivers this year — it might be the best group we've had in a while, and Ian can throw the ball, so we'll open it up a little more," Smith added. "Ian can run, we'll just have to pick our spots with it. We have kind of a rotation of backs we'll use, and we'll probably get better on offense as the season goes along."
No matter what plays the offense is running, Lin said the squad knows it has one of the best student cheering sections in South Jersey behind it, and that means a lot to these players.
"Our team is hyped," Lin said. "Especially on Friday nights, Raider Nation is a great student section and that gets us really hyped up."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays