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The rebuilding of Oakcrest football on schedule; Falcons look to take back Thanksgiving trophy

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Oakcrest head football coach Chuck Smith knew the 2012 and 2013 seasons would be tough, but he also knew he had some outstanding talent coming up through the ranks and that this would be the year the Falcons had to turn things around. The Falcons went 2-8 last season, but returned starting players in several key skill positions, including sophomore quarterback Kendall Elliott, who set a South Jersey record for passing yards by a rookie, and tailback Terrence Smith. This was the year Smith had pointed to as the beginning of the resurgence of Oakcrest football, but it was all just talk until his players performed on the field. They did just that, winning three of their first five games and eventually earning a spot in the state playoffs, where Central Regional ended their championship hopes with a 28-14 win in the opening round. The Falcons head into their Thanksgiving Day rivalry with Absegami with a 5-4 record and a chance at a winning season. They are averaging more than 250 yards of offense per game and have scored 18 touchdowns in nine games. “After having two major rebuilding seasons in a row, the goal this year was to have a winning record and make the playoffs. We made the playoffs and a win on Thanksgiving would give us that winning record checkmark also,” Smith said. Smith said the major stumbling block this year for his team was consistency. After beating East Orange and Pleasantville to start the season, Oakcrest traded losses and wins every other game the rest of the way. The coach said his team got a taste of winning this year, and the next step will be sustaining winning streaks. “There were times where, offensively, we had (consistency) but there were times in some big games where we lacked it. Defensively, we were much better than we had been in the past two seasons, but there were still times when we didn’t get that key third-down stop and other teams kept their drive alive,” Smith said. “And there were times when we just didn’t have the physicality and that’s something that with the majority of the team coming back next season we have to address. Quarterback Kendall Elliott is just a sophomore, and a year after setting freshman passing records he became much more of a running quarterback and a legitimate dual threat at the position. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Quarterback Kendall Elliott is just a sophomore, and a year after setting freshman passing records he became much more of a running quarterback and a legitimate dual threat at the position. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “How do we take that next step? We’re there now, we made the playoffs, hopefully we’ll have a winning record after Thanksgiving, so what is the next step to get to the next level?” Senior Kevin Stokes said making the playoffs after a 2-8 season a year ago was high on the list of priorities for this year’s team and was a good first step in bringing the program back to prominence. “I think it was a good year, especially for my senior season, to know that we were the team that put Oakcrest back on track and let people know that we’re not going to be an easy win for them anymore, that we’re going to fight week in and week out no matter who the opponent is,” Stokes said. “That was our goal heading into the season, even last spring when we had our first meeting and talking about this year and how we needed to do certain things, reach certain goals, and the playoffs was definitely the main one.” Stokes said playing in a postseason game was a dream come true for him. He missed most of last year due to injury. “It was unbelievable. Especially since my freshman year I didn’t really have any influence on the team, I was just there to watch the other guys play. This was my time to shine and be in the postseason, where it’s win or go home. I feel like we accomplished some of our goals, but we talked (after the playoff loss) about how there were so many more things that we should have done, we just didn’t seize the moment when it was there. That’s something these guys will have to remember going into the offseason and next year,” Stokes said. “Next year, I think this team is going to be unbelievable, especially with all the younger guys who got experience this year. Terrence, Kendall, (Yaier) Hinton is going to be a good player.” Oakcrest is built around Elliott. He followed up his breakout freshman year by leading the team in both rushing and passing. He also got much more playing time as a defensive back, something Smith said he plans to continue as Elliott keeps maturing physically. He grew an inch and put on 20 pounds between his freshman and sophomore years. “He’s taking the steps. He is still making mistakes like all young quarterbacks do. But I think what we saw this year was he became a better passer and a smarter quarterback. He figured out when to force the ball, when not to and how to get rid of the ball without taking a big sack. He took that big step forward. The big thing I really saw this year was he really became a force running the ball. He does a great job of the zone read and when he gets to the second and third levels, he’s not a fun person to tackle. He doesn’t try to juke you out either, he puts his shoulder down and tries to run through you,” Smith said. “Hopefully he keeps taking those steps. I think he’ll gain confidence in the offseason as he continues to get stronger. As he progresses I think he will become a more efficient passer, and I think what you’ll see from him is he will become a more complete football player in terms of being one of those guys who is always on the field. He has played more and more on the defensive side, and he’s a physical football player.” Smith said that even though Oakcrest’s playoff appearance was brief, there still is plenty to play for. “This Thanksgiving game is huge for (the seniors) because they have never beaten (Absegami). This group of seniors has never won on Thanksgiving, so they are really pumped up. We gave them some time off after the loss to Central in the playoffs to kind of decompress and get it out of their head. And when we came back we turned the page right away and started working toward Absegami because it’s a big game,” Smith said. “They are a district rival, the seniors have never beaten them. A lot is on the line for us. A winning record would be huge for us. It’s going to be a tight game. Absegami has gotten a lot better as the season has gone on, so it will be just like a playoff game.” [adrotate banner=”3″] “Thanksgiving is huge. Nobody in the school now knows what it’s like to hold that trophy,” Stokes said. “I know Absegami is fired up, they don’t want to be the class that lets down their school and we don’t want to be the class that repeats the last couple of years, especially after the season we have had.” Smith said he doesn’t put too much stock in a Thanksgiving win giving a team momentum heading into the following season, but he said this year it is important because the players coming back got a taste of what it is like to play quality football and win games, and he wants them to carry those positive feelings into offseason workouts. “With the young guys coming back it really builds that confidence and shows them the potential that is there for them. They know what is within reach. I think sometimes people make a little bit more out of it than there really is because there is such a big gap in between, but it just gives you that boost as a player (if you win.) It provides incentive,” Smith said. “The kids understood as the season went on what the games meant. We weren’t just playing kids to have them get experience. They realized what was at stake during each game and I think they understand that it’s more fun to play in (meaningful) games. That’s what you’re there for. They got that little taste this year and I think that will bode well for next season.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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Video of the day

VIDEO OF THE DAY

Coach Dennis Scuderi talks with his team after Absegami beat Oakcrest 27-26 on Thanksgiving Day in t…