By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The Cedar Creek High School football team reveled in the afterglow of its 2015 South Jersey Group 2 championship last December — for about two weeks. Then, it was right back to business with the offseason conditioning program.
Head coach Tim Watson wants to build a championship program, and winning the state title a year ago went a long way toward giving the Pirates credibility as one of the top programs in South Jersey. Now, the challenge becomes maintaining that standard of excellence, especially in the new West Jersey Football League. The Pirates will be tested early and often with a beefed up schedule that includes a very tough Independence Division plus some absolutely brutal non-divisional games against the likes of Haddonfield and Camden.
“We try to make (training camp) as fundamentally driven as possible. The kids were excited about what they were a part of last year, but you try to leave that in the past,” Watson said. “What we’re really trying to impress upon them is that we are going to have a target on our backs this year, so, if anything, things need to be ratcheted up. Not only do we have to get ready for a new schedule, but the teams we will be playing are going to be gunning for us.”
The Pirates had their best season ever in 2015, going 10-2 and coming from behind in all three of their playoff wins. The held off a late offensive surge by West Deptford in the championship game to win 28-27. But, Cedar Creek lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad, particularly at the skill positions. Guys such as Ahmir Mitchell, Louie Pitale and Khamir Harvey graduated. There is plenty of talent returning, however. Jesse Milza enters his fourth year as a starting quarterback, and he has Bo Melton to throw to. Melton was one of the most highly recruited players in South Jersey before deciding on Rutgers this past spring. The Pirates also have bruising tailback Isaiah Watson and some strong defenders returning, such as middle linebacker Jessie Nikolaev and defensive lineman Owen Bowles, who also gave a verbal commitment to Rutgers.
“For the most part, our focus is the same. We try to approach every day with a championship mindset. We feel that if we attack every day with that mindset, we’ll have success throughout the season. We feel more confident this year. The pressure is there every year, so I don’t feel like we have more pressure this year coming off a state championship, but we certainly have to live up to a certain standard,” Nikolaev said. “Most of what we are doing is fine-tuning. With guys like Jesse, Bo and Owen being four-year starters, we have to get the little details right. In the end, the little details will determine how well we do this year.”
“I think camp is going well. We’ve made some great progress the past few weeks. We’re trying to have a strong mental approach every day. I think we’re ahead of where we were last year,” Milza said. “As soon as that state championship was over, we had a couple of weeks off and then we were right back in the weight room. We don’t really want to focus on it too much. We want to focus on this year and the new schedule we have. We’re excited to play these new teams. It was a great thing that we did, and the only thing that can make it better is to prove everyone wrong and have a great season again.”
Watson said that if his players think about slacking off during training camp, all he has to do is remind them about the 2014 season. Cedar Creek had one of the best teams in South Jersey, but a couple of early losses cost the Pirates a shot at a playoff berth even though they had a 6-2 record. Every game — and every day of practice — matters, is what coach Watson is preaching.
“It’s a very good group of seniors who have been through some great times. The lesson these guys can fall back on is, two years ago we were 6-2 and didn’t make the playoffs and that was probably — on paper — our most talented team. A lot of these guys were on that team, so they see some of the battles that team went through early on and maybe some of the times they didn’t handle adversity very well,” Watson said. “So this team, we’ve always been able to remind them about that team. But every year, new guys come up and need to play more prominent roles. Preseason camp is always so layered with so many different personalities. It’s always cool to see. It’s not always pretty. You have to go through that gritty, formative stage, but what the hope is that by the time you reach your first game they are ready to go.”
That doesn’t mean the Pirates are trading helmet paint for hours at a time. Watson said he has learned a lot from college coaches the past couple of years and is relying more on classroom work and film study and less on physical contact this summer. He can afford that luxury, since he has a lot of players who are experienced with the playbook. The Pirates may not need as many reps as a less experienced team to understand a play design and how it should be run.
“We want to make sure guys are healthy and that we avoid injuries. I talked to a lot of college coaches during the offseason, and some of them don’t hit during the week,” Watson said. “I talked to the Dartmouth defensive coordinator, and they don’t tackle during the week. They never do full-contact stuff, and they have the best defense in the Ivy League. So, stuff like that, you take notes on and try to figure out how they keep the intensity up while minimizing the contact. I think the game is going to need to evolve in ways like that if it’s going to stay around.”
Watson said he has limited the action of some of his star players, such as Milza and Melton, during preseason scrimmages to make sure they are ready for the season opener, Sept. 9 at Absegami.
“You always tweak things. The more I do it, the more comfortable I’m getting with being in tune with the kids, when to back off on stuff. I don’t think every day has to be a marathon session with a ton of contact. We’re not afraid to get them into the classroom and spend more time doing that and watching film. A lot of times those types of things can be more valuable,” Watson said. “There’s a certain amount of toughness that comes with grinding on those hot days. Those days will really forge what a team’s identity is, but one of the things that stand out to me about what I’ve learned is when to back off, when to change the practice plan. It’s not a kinder, gentler Tim Watson, but hopefully a wiser one.”
Nikolaev said this season isn’t about trying to repeat what happened last fall. He said he feels that if the Pirates continue to come to work every day with a championship attitude, they’ll have an opportunity to get back into the state playoffs in November.
“At the end of the year, I want to be able to say everyone gave everything they had. My sophomore year, we had one of the best teams we’ve ever had, on paper, but we came up short at 6-2 and didn’t make the playoffs,” Nikolaev said. “We have to live up to the standard of last year’s team, but at the same time you have to wash that away and figure out what we have with this year’s team. If we give every single thing we have this year and we don’t make the championship, I still want to be able to say we left nothing out there on the field.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN