By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Jack O’Brien enters his senior season at Oakcrest High with 31 career goals and 20 assists. Falcons head coach Scott Miele says he’s going to do everything he can this fall to showcase O’Brien’s talents and that may mean moving him all over the field to try to create mismatches and scoring opportunities.
Miele knows other teams will be keying on O’Brien and throwing two, three, even four or five defenders at him every time he touches the ball, but with a scorer the likes of O’Brien, that’s just another challenge to take head on.
“Jack O’Brien — I’ve been coaching for 14 years and he’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of kid,” Miele said. “We’ve been lucky at this school the past couple of years where we’ve had some really talented kids and Jack is right up there at the top. You’re talking about a three-sport star, academically he’s phenomenal. He’s going to be a scholarship athlete — hopefully within the next couple of days, we have a few offers on the table, so we’ll see where he’s going to go.”
Oakcrest went 9-5-3 last year but lost four of its last five games, including getting outscored 9-3 in postseason losses to Hammonton (in the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament) and Delran (first round of the South Jersey Group 2 playoffs). Miele said he feels like this team could make it back to the CAL Tournament and states, but a lot of that optimism hinges on the play of O’Brien and senior keeper Joey Snodgrass, as well as some of a big class of freshmen coming in and making an impact right away. Oakcrest lost a couple of seniors to other endeavors and the Falcons don’t have huge junior and sophomore classes, so some rookies are going to get a chance to see what they are made of this season.
“We’re optimistic. We have a large freshman class with 12 kids. We did have a couple of seniors step away to focus on other things and schedule is much harder with teams like Haddon Heights, Haddonfield, Timber Creek, Seneca,” Miele said. “I wanted to make sure we played some tough nonconference games just so people could see Jack play and make sure he gets recognition.”
O’Brien was in the conversation for Cape-Atlantic League Player of the Year and is a dynamic offensive player, but he can also be utilized in the midfield or even on the defensive back line if necessary. Miele said he’s had conversations during the preseason about O’Brien going out there and being the dominant player the Falcons need him to be, no matter where Oakcrest uses him on the field.
“That’s part of what we worked on during the preseason. We spent time showing him that he’s going to be in different places. We haven’t really cut him loose and said he’s going to be up top, like Ocean City did a few years ago with John Lindsay (24 goals, 12 assists three years ago). He was a force of nature out there and I told Jack that’s what he needs to be,” Miele said. “I told him, ‘I don’t care if you’re playing center-mid, on the back line or striker — you need to be that dominant player.’ We’ve even thought about him playing a defensive role for us. One of our defenders decided not to come back and I had a really serious conversation with our coaches about every Oakcrest team we’ve had, one of our two best players is playing a central defender role. But we have some younger kids we’re going to try back there and we’ll try to move Jack around and put him in situations where he can dictate most of the game. That’s our goal.”
It won’t be a one-man show, however, as the Falcons look to build on last year’s success. There certainly is some talent around O’Brien.
“We have a transfer, Alyns Polynice from Atlantic City, he was a varsity player for them last year and scored five goals. He’s going to be pretty pivotal in our scoring,” Miele said. “Kelvin Urena is a senior and we’ve asked him the last few years to hold down that center-mid position and keep things in the middle of the field defensively, but we’ll be leaning on him a little mor to score this year. The other way we’re going to try to generate offense is with our outside attack. We spent most of the preseason drilling in to them that we need to finish runs. We have a couple of seniors who will be starting out there and playing a pivotal role.”
Oakcrest may be able to push the envelope a little bit offensively knowing they have Snodgrass in front of the woodwork. A solid lacrosse player, Snodgrass dedicated more time this offseason to his goalie training and Miele said he’s been impressed with the results. He’s also much bigger than he was a year ago.
“Joey Snodgrass is back and he’s played the last two years. He’s grown a few inches and I can’t believe he’s now 6-foot-4. It doesn’t even look like him anymore. You’re talking about a kid who has a lot of experience and has played a lot of minutes. And this is probably the first offseason where he really worked on fine-tuning things — his 6 (yard-line) kicks, making sure he can punt consistently. We’re really lucky that he’s dedicated himself this year. Most of our kids play multiple sports and he’s a really good lacrosse defender,” Miele said. “He’s going to have a big season for us. I think he’ll be one of the best goalkeepers in the entire league.”
Oakcrest will be led by senior captains O’Brien, Snodgrass, Urena and Stef Egnatz and the Falcons will tip off their season on Saturday at 10 a.m. at Timber Creek. They also have tough road games this month at Middle Township, Mainland, Pleasantville and Cedar Creek.
“I think we’ll have some growing pains on defense, but with Joe back there I don’t think those growing pains will dictate our season,” Miele said. “We’re still going to have the same goal we had the last couple of years — try to get a lead, then once we get a lead we’ll play that low block and put the other team in a position where they have to lob balls in and we can easily clear them. We try to just keep everything in front of us, sit on their main guys and make sure they can’t pivot and reverse the ball on us.”
Miele said he likes the makeup of this team, even if it is a bit different as the roster is loaded with seniors and freshmen.
“This is one of the weirder teams I’ve been around in my time as a head coach. In years past we had a very linear chain of command where it was one group kind of transitioning to another, but this year we have a lot of freshmen and we’re going to need a couple of them to play,” Miele said. “This is the first time in a couple of years that we’ll have a true JV team, so we have a wide variety of kids with different skills. We’re senior heavy but then our sophomore and junior classes are really light, and our freshman class has 12 players in it. So we’ll be pretty green next year, but this year we have four senior captains and we’ll be leaning on them to help get everybody in line and understanding what it means to be tough and physical. Traditionally, we’ve always been a tough, physical team and we need to have that mindset before we get to October.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays