By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Eric Anderson may be in his first year as head coach at Oakcrest, but he’s been around the program for years as an assistant. Former coach Chuck Smith stepped down after last season and took over at Mainland Regional, handing the keys to a very good program over to Anderson.
The Falcons return 4-year starting quarterback Kendall Elliott, and while they lost all-time leading rusher Terrence Smith to graduation, guys such as linebacker Yaier Hinton, defensive end Alex Nichols and offensive linemen Armani and Armond Duren all return as seniors.
“A successful season is going to the championship,” said Hinton, the outspoken leader of the defense. “I think we have a shot with as many seniors as we have and the leadership on this team. Now that we have all been around each other for the past four years, we’re getting a better feel for the game. I think this could be our year.”
Anderson doesn’t mind his players saying how they feel, as long as they know that whatever they say, they’ll have to back it up on the field once the whistle blows in the season opener against Ocean City. The Falcons, who went 5-5 last season, enter into the West Jersey Football League’s Independence Division — a place where teams such as St. Joseph, Cedar Creek, Mainland, Ocean City and Absegami also reside. Both Cedar Creek and St. Joseph are coming off sectional championships. Oakcrest made it to the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs the past two years, losing in the first round each time. In 2014, fourth-seeded Central Regional beat No. 5 Oakcrest, 28-14, and last year No. 2 Pemberton narrowly avoided a first-round upset, edging the No. 7 Falcons, 23-21.
Anderson said he’s hoping that playoff experience will pay dividends this year.
“I hope it starts to pay off. The attitudes are right where they need to be. Everybody is positive and excited,” Anderson said. “There’s something special here, I just hope they realize it as much as I do and can buy in even more. The last two years, with the playoff losses, hopefully we can build off that and hopefully get a playoff win, two playoff wins, and go from there.”
“We’re just trying to get the team better, get the team chemistry down. There’s a lot of young guys on the team, so I have to take charge and kind of lead the way,” Elliott said. “We’re focusing on the little things. Little things add up. We’re trying to get stronger and better on the field, and just be more precise on offense.”
The players seem to enjoy having Anderson, a longtime assistant to Smith, calling the shots now.
“I think that was the smartest move (the school) could have made. Coach Anderson knows the kids, knows how we are, knows how we play,” Elliott said.
“Coach Anderson is a really good coach. I think he filled that spot because he knows how we have been in previous years, and that makes us better as a team. It makes us more comfortable having him step up and be the man,” Hinton said.
The Falcons have some younger talent to go along with a strong senior class. Yahsyn McKee is a sophomore corner and wide receiver who logged a lot of varsity time last year, and Alec Rodriguez is a big, physical outside linebacker and wide receiver who could make an impact on both sides of the ball. And Jailen Heard is a speedy, shifty running back who could see a lot of action in the backfield, or split out as a wide receiver.
“I think camp has gone really well for us. We’re coming together as a team, on and off the field,” Hinton said. “Our main focus coming into this year is to get better every rep. As we get better, we come together more as a team and we play better. Our offensive line and defensive line are really stepping up.”
“It’s been going great. I was a little nervous at first just trying to make sure everything runs smoothly. I’m a pretty organized guy, so I just wanted to make sure all my ducks were in a row and everything was running smoothly. So far, so good,” Anderson said. “Our seniors are stepping up and bringing the younger guys along with them. If something is being done wrong, they aren’t afraid to take a minute and show them how to do it the right way. Plus, the senior play during our scrimmages has been outstanding. So, if we can stay healthy, the sky is the limit.”
Now is the tough part, Anderson said. The season opener is still nearly two weeks away, and summer practice can get boring for teenage kids. So Anderson said he has been trying to mix it up, add some team building outings. Anything to keep the kids excited so they are ready to go on Sept. 9. But he said he still wants them to understand that there is a lot of work to put in before the Falcons strap it up against the Red Raiders.
“It’s the daily grind. You have to punch your card and go to work every day. We hit the weight room four or five days a week and then we come out and practice afterward. We haven’t had any issues,” Anderson said. “The kids are out here grinding and trying to get better. Hopefully, they know we can do something special this year. There’s been a couple of days where we’ve had some fun, done some team building things. We try to keep it light, because it does get monotonous for the kids, and the coaches.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN