By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Pleasantville scored a late touchdown to upset host Ocean City, 15-14, during the Thanksgiving Day game in 2013. That was the last time the Greyhounds won a game, as Pleasantville posted back-to-back winless seasons in 2014 and 2015. Head coach Chris Sacco, who took over prior to last season, is doing everything he can to change that, however.
Low numbers and a tough schedule that featured some of the best teams in South Jersey the past two years contributed to the 0-10 seasons, but Sacco said he is a lot more confident in his team this year. The squad has nearly 50 players now, as opposed to just 32 when the 2015 season ended. The Greyhounds hit the weight room hard this offseason and have a lot of returning players. They’ll also get a chance to play schools more relative to their size in the new West Jersey Football League.
Instead of having to play South Jersey powerhouses such as Cedar Creek and St. Augustine Prep, Pleasantville will get a chance to face off against smaller schools such as Pitman, Riverside and Wildwood in their non-division games. The division has some traditional powers in Holy Spirit and Buena, and also features Middle Township and Lower Cape May.
“It’s been a great improvement from last year. We hit the weight room hard and we’ve been out here working every day. We’re hungry. We’re tired of losing. We want to win. We’ve been competing in our scrimmages and look better. (With the new schedule) we have a better chance of winning. It’s a more equal level of competition, with similar numbers, and that gives us a better chance,” said junior quarterback Le’Quai Athill, who started last year as a sophomore. “Defensively, we have to tackle and wrap up, and we’ve been working a lot on that. Offensively, we can’t have turnovers, penalties and dumb mistakes.”
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be around great programs and great coaching staffs my whole life. I’ve had great football people around me. I coached at St. Joe, I played at Hammonton, and I figured why not try to rebuild a program like those coaches did? It’s a great opportunity. The kids are great here. I really wanted a challenge. We’re getting things together. The biggest thing I wanted to do was come in here, build a program and get these kids to experience winning and have something they can be proud of,” Sacco said about the reason he took the job last summer. “Last year, we didn’t get started until June. We didn’t know the kids and we had just assembled the staff, so we were all still getting acclimated with each other. This year has been a continuation. We made a nice foundation last year, we got in the weight room in January, and the kids have been excited. We had a nice winter and spring, and that continued into the summer. We’ve seen leaders evolve. Our skill guys were out here on their own in February throwing the ball around and trying to get everything up to speed so we could hit the ground running this year. The commitment level is definitely there. We’d like to get some more kids involved in the program, and we’re hoping if we can get some wins this year that will get more kids excited to come out for the program.”
Pleasantville has some pretty good players returning. Along with Athill, the Greyhounds will be led by senior receiver and defensive back Tay’shon Evans, and senior Josue Valerius is one of the bigger linemen in South Jersey. Dan and David Samuel return as junior and will be a big part of a rebuilding defense, as will Quanif Colbert. John Robinson has been nursing a knee injury, but said he will be back for the season opener, and he’s one of the more athletic players on the team.
The Greyhounds also have Malik Morgan, one of the top basketball players in South Jersey, as one of Athill’s targets at wide receiver in the spread offense. Senior Mike Peeler also should contribute as a wideout, and Andre Haynes can play some tight end along with being a linebacker on defense.
“This year we’re trying to win some games, more than what we did my freshman year when we won three games. We want to make the playoffs. Ultimately, we want to bring a championship here, but we have to take it one step at a time. We’re trying to make a big change here. Our mindset is to win games, come out here and play tough, have fun, and do what we do. The coaches are doing a great job teaching us, and we have to bring that winning attitude,” Evans said. “Our entire coaching staff is very helpful. They like teaching us the game, and we appreciate them working hard to try to change this around.”
“Coach Sacco believes in us and he has good energy to spark up everybody. He knows his football, so he knows what he’s talking about. We just have to listen and follow what he says,” Athill added.
Sacco said the rebuilding process has many layers. He wants to get the parents as involved as possible, and the coaching staff is trying to do the little things that can help the players take ownership of the program. They’ve invested in new helmets and uniforms, a team barbecue is held during preseason, and the coaches and parents provide snacks for bus rides home after away games. Sacco believes that if the Greyhounds look like a good team and get the kind of treatment that good teams get, then Pleasantville can become a good team again.
“People are starting to notice Pleasantville football again, and that re-energizes the players. It gets them excited each week, and it helps us as a staff. We’re hoping that will continue to build and carry us to some wins this year,” Sacco said. “We came in here — and I’m fortunate enough to be a teacher here, so I’m in the building every day — but these kids know we care about them. We do a lot of nice things for them. The parents and some people I know have been pitching in. We get them snacks for bus rides after games, we had our team barbecue recently. We try to show some appreciation (to the players). We want them to know we care about them as individuals, regardless of the record, and we’re going to do this together. Those personal relationships come before winning and losing any day of the week.”
Sacco said support from the parents and community will be very important going forward as the Greyhounds try to build into a program that competes for a playoff berth consistently.
“Communicating with the parents is a big thing. Trying to get them to buy into the program and buy into us, that’s something we want. Football takes a high level of commitment. You practice six days a week and only get to play one day a week. Sometimes it’s not always entertaining for the kids to come out and practice two hours, four days per week and then have a walk-through. So we do need that support from the parents and the community, family members. That definitely helps the commitment,” Sacco said. “I think, ultimately, if we can win some games this year that will spark even more interest. We’re working closely with the Jokers (youth) program and they have some good numbers this year. It’s all about getting to know the parents and coaches at that level so that they feel comfortable sending their kids to Pleasantville High School when it comes time.”
Sacco said that with all the nice things provided to the players, however, comes a price. That price is commitment to hard work. He demands effort from his players and said he feels like now is the time to start raising the expectations for the program.
“I thought our staff did a great job and our kids really gave a lot of effort last year, even though our record didn’t indicate that. This year, since we have had a full offseason with the players, we have talked about expectations. We’ve raised the bar, and I think they are getting the idea that when we watch film, we are pointing out things to them this year that maybe we wouldn’t have last year. We’re trying to take it to the next level,” Sacco said. “We want the bar to be raised and we want to go further this year. We can do it if the kids are willing to listen and put in the work in the film room, on the field and in the weight room. We are expecting a lot out of them this year.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN