By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

In 2016, the Collingswood High football team went 8-3 and made it to the second round of the state playoffs before losing to West Deptford. There have been some rough times since then — none rougher than last year’s 2-9 mark that featured six straight losses to start the season.

Panthers head coach Mike McKeown (pronounced Mick-QUE-in) has dubbed the 2022 campaign the “Redemption Year.” He and his players want to get back that feeling of being a competitive football team that can earn a trip to the state playoffs and make some noise.

McKeown has a small senior class of just eight players, but he said they are focused on getting things right again, and didn’t take last year’s disappointment lightly.

“We have eight seniors and two of them started for me as freshman. So I think those eight guys are going to take a little pride to try to fix what happened last year,” McKeown said. “Our weight room was a lot better, our summer workouts were better.”

“It’s been great this year. In the offseason, everybody has been there and doing their part to make big things happen this year. A lot of people seem like they are more dedicated and want this program to go in a winning direction. There’s a lot more promise,” said senior linebacker and captain Justin Pilla. “We have a lot of diversity. In the past there has been some conflict between players, but I think changing that as a culture and a program — we’re not pointing fingers anymore.”

Dyaire Talbert is a 1,000-yard rusher who Collingswood hopes to have back on the field by Week 3. He suffered a broken wrist during the summer 7-on-7 workouts. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Collingswood certainly has the offensive weapons to be able to compete. Quarterback Tim Search had a good year last season, and now is a 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior, and Shakur Carter (6-3/190) is getting some Division I looks as a wide receiver. Tomas Money (6-2/195) is back playing football after concentrating mostly on basketball last year, and Isaiah Pepe-Mangro is one of the top sprinters in the state.

The offense will revolve around senior Dyaire Talbert, though, without a doubt. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in just seven games, and should be back by Week 3 this year after suffering a broken left wrist during the 7-on-7 summer season.

“He’s been with us since he was a freshman and when he gets back he’ll be the heart and soul of our offense,” McKeown said.

“It’s been hard, losing one of our best players early in the offseason, but we’re battling through it,” Pilla said of Talbert’s injury. “We’re finding guys who want to compete and I think we’re going to have a great year this year.”

There’s more of a winning attitude around the club this year, players said, including Talbert.

“That’s all about last year,” he said, referring to the ‘Redemption Year’ mantra. “We had a bad season, got off to a bad start, and this year we’re looking to change that and be something different. We’ve become more of a team. There are no more individuals, we’re all a team this year.”

“Our schedule is a lot different from last year. Last year we played three teams that were sectional champions and Delran and Woodstown were really good. We’re young at the offensive line while our skill guys are a little bit older and have played for me for awhile now. I think we can get better quickly, cause damage and get back to where we were in the past. But it’s really going to come down to how mature my sophomores and the guys who haven’t really played much varsity football can be,” McKeown said. “I expect us to compete. We’re going to be in a dogfight every game. I think we can compete for a division championship. Will it be tough? Of course, but at the end of the day, if you look at our OSI (opponents strength of schedule index) we’re all within a few points of each other. If you go off that it looks like it’s going to be a good division.”

McKeown said it’s important for the Panthers to get off to a good start so the younger players can start to build some confidence. Collingswood hosts Kensington (Pa.) on Friday at 7 p.m. then has a couple of road games, at Cinnaminson and then at Gateway.

“My first year coaching here, right out of college in 2002, we won one game. The following year we upset Deptford as the No. 8 seed in the first round of the playoffs and went 8-2. I tell my kids all the time, it’s a new season. I’m the kind of person who thinks you have to get things going early and get kids believing. In high school football, if you can get to 2-0 or 3-1, the kids start believing in themselves,” he said. “These are probably the most coachable kids I’ve had here. They are getting a little better every day, and they are ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ type of kids, which is half the battle anymore with this generation. If you add everything together, our kids felt embarrassed about last year and they know they are better than that.”

Pilla said the Panthers’ success will come down to one thing — desire.  

“You have to want it, more than anything,” he said. “The coaches can put us through all the drills, but it all comes from the heart. If you don’t want it, you’re not going to get it.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays