By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Little things can go a long way toward building team chemistry. That’s what Atlantic City football coach Thomas Kelly has been preaching to his team this offseason. And the players have responded.
Even beyond the Xs and Os, the seniors have been stepping up with things as simple as picking up a teammate to give him a ride to a weight lifting session or summer practice. The guys are helping each other, and coach Kelly believes that will pay dividends this season — especially considering the Vikings will be up against some tough competition in the new West Jersey Football League Continental Division.
“We’ve gotten a lot more senior leadership than we have in the past. Guys have really been stepping up, and I’m talking about things you might not even associate with football, which we appreciate. Picking up guys — we didn’t have bussing this year, so we needed carpooling. A lot of our kids don’t have a way to get to practice or the weight room, so we’ve had a lot of guys step up in those departments, so we’re proud of that,” Kelly said. “Guys like Aaron Jackson, Scott Jones and Vashon Brock have been stepping up. We feel like if we start doing to the little things and acting like a family, like picking kids up, that’s going to translate onto the field. So, we’re very proud of that.”
The Vikings made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, including nearly upsetting top-seeded Eastern Regional before falling, 32-26. Atlantic City had a 26-22 lead in the third quarter before a safety and a touchdown pass by Tom Flacco ended Atlantic City’s bid for the upset. The Vikings made the playoffs again in 2014 but finished a disappointing 4-6 a year ago. It looked like a great start for Atlantic City, which jumped out to a 20-point lead on host Egg Harbor Township in the first half, but the Eagles came roaring back to win, 41-34. Atlantic City lost five of its next six games before finishing out the year with three straight wins.
“We’ve had an up-and-down camp. We’ve put in a lot of hours and I’m happy with the development, but it’s just camp. When you see live game action is when you see the true measure of your team and how good we can be. Although we’re happy with the way camp is going, we’ll be happy to get out of it and get into some real game situations,” Kelly said. “We know that if we take care of the little things — and we’ve been preaching this all throughout camp — get the first down, wrap up when you tackle. If we take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves. I’m looking for attention to detail. I’m looking for no dead-ball penalties, no personal fouls. We don’t want things that will stop drives, because that’s what can lose you a ball game. I’m looking for guys who have been training hard to show some stamina, because we’re going to have a lot of guys who have to go both ways.”
“The vibe is really good. We have a lot of young guys and a lot of speed. It’s fun to be out here for my senior year,” said Jackson, a senior receiver and defensive back. “The knowledge of the game is so much more, now that I’m older. I’ve seen so much in the game and I know more about the game now. It’s a big difference to know that everybody is looking at me as someone to follow, but I know I can do it. All I have to do is come out with a lot of hype, and everybody will feed off my energy.”
Atlantic City is showing plenty of confidence in the preseason, and Kelly said that needs to carry over into the regular season, especially with the schedule Atlantic City has. Division games will feature EHT, Vineland, Millville, Bridgeton and St. Augustine Prep, while crossover opponents include Washington Township, Williamstown, Kingsway and Holy Spirit.
“We’re just going to line up and play whoever. We don’t look at who we have to play, we just come out and play football. It doesn’t matter who is on the schedule,” Jackson said. “The playoffs, that’s our goal this year.”
Kelly said his players are very aware of the reputation schools such as Washington Township, Williamstown, St. Augustine Prep, Millville, Holy Spirit and Bridgeton have, as well as the talent those schools possess.
“These are teenagers, so they are on social media. They know about the schools. They know more about the schools than we do, so they are very excited about (the new schedule). They are looking forward to playing some of the schools that they’ve heard about and have been successful in the past, like Williamstown and Washington Township. These kids are tech savvy, so they know what’s going on. I don’t know that I’m particularly looking forward to playing some of those schools, though,” Kelly said. “More than anything, we count on the seniors. The seniors have been around for all of the ups and downs. They understand that if we come out and have a terrible week of practice, we’re going to play terribly. There are no weeks off in this league. In the past, we might have had a smaller school in the crossover games, but there are no easy games on this schedule, and our guys know that, our coaches know that. We have to show up every single week. So, I’m counting on the seniors to remember some of feelings we went through last year. Some of the games we thought we should have won and the disappointing feeling after we lost.”
While Kelly admits he might need a few bottles of heartburn relief tablets to get through the daunting schedule, he said the coaching staff and players welcome the challenge. To be the best, you have to beat the best, he said, and the Vikings aren’t shying away from anybody.
“There are going to be a lot of sleepless nights, but that’s the challenge of it. One day, we want to be the best team in South Jersey. In order to do that, you have to beat everybody,” Kelly said. “If we think we’re going to be one of the best teams, we have to beat those good teams. So, we look forward to the challenge. It’s what we signed up for. Our guys have confidence, but they have to show up. We know what the other teams have, now we have to show up and play them.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN