By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Mainland Regional football coach Chuck Smith has one simple message for his team entering the 2022 season: be the hammer, not the nail.
The Stangs have taken their lumps the past two seasons following up 2019’s incredible 9-1 campaign, and all the young guys who got playing time in the covid-shortened 2020 season and during last year’s 4-6 trek are now older, stronger and more mature. It’s time for the Stangs to get back to playing outstanding football again.
And Mainland certainly has the talent to do just that.
Returning are quarterback Marlon Leslie and running back Ja’Briel Mace — two of the most dynamic backs in the area. Leslie played most of last season with a busted up shoulder, but just had to tough it out before getting surgery in November.
“I played most of last season with a (throwing shoulder injury), and that really limited my game,” said Leslie, who began his career at Pleasantville before transferring to Mainland. “But I kept pushing and I was still trying to make plays for my team and do what I had to do. I hurt it the first game of the season, but I didn’t get surgery until November. It’s 100 percent now. The rehab process was long and felt like it was never going to be over, but Dr. (Ryan) Buccafurni (of Peak Performance) is an amazing person and he and his staff really helped me.”
Leslie knows having a guy like Mace in the backfield will take a lot of pressure off him, but both guys run the ball hard, and run it a lot. They also play defense, and both were pretty banged up by the end of last year. But Stephen Ordille began to emerge as a second running back last year and with more depth on defense, Mace and Leslie may not have to play both ways quite as much this year.
“This year, I’ll be looking to air the ball out and go for way more passing yards than I had last year, and also mix in some running. The running game helps the passing game, and the passing game helps the running game,” Leslie said. “Ja’Briel is a great guy and one of the most dynamic players I’ve ever played with. You give him the ball and give him some space to work with, and he’s gone. He made some amazing plays last year.”
“What I like about this year’s team is the work ethic. We have a lot of experienced guys back — guys who have played for two or three years already. We had a great July in the weight room and on the practice field, and they are determined. We’ve had a couple of years now where we’ve taken it on the chin, and they are really looking forward to this season,” Smith said. “For us, it’s just making sure we’re putting the kids in position to be successful. What happens on the field will be what happens. We have a lot of experience on the coaching staff and I think that’s helping the kids tremendously. Just putting the kids in the right spots to be successful will be the big key for us this year.”
STAR-STUDDED STAFF: Smith’s staff has a whole collection of championship trophies, and he said it’s about time the football team gets one again. Mainland might have the most star-studded staff in South Jersey.
Consider this: assistant coach Tim Watson led Cedar Creek High for 10 years and won a couple of state titles; Smith was able to coax former West Deptford legend Clyde Folsom out of retirement to help with the offensive line; assistant coach Brian Booth has won multiple state championships with the Mainland boys swimming team; assistant Billy Kern led the Mainland baseball team to the 2014 Group 3 state championship, and assistant Andre Clements skippers one of the most successful golf programs in South Jersey each spring.
“Obviously, coach Watson is a stud, and so is coach Folsom. It helps a lot, especially being able to pick their brains when it comes to offense and defense,” Mace said.
EXPERIENCE IN THE RIGHT PLACES: The success of just about every high school football team comes down to the running game, and Mainland should have one of the better ones in South Jersey. Mace and Leslie are both capable of getting 100 yards in any game, and sometimes even both in the same game.
“What I’m looking forward to as a senior is us getting back on track and bringing Mainland back to what it used to be. My recruitment was pretty cool with all the schools looking at me, but now it’s time to lock in,” said Mace, a Villanova commit. “Freshman year was amazing then sophomore year I kind of got hurt a lot. Junior year, we kind of got back on track toward the end of the season, and now as a senior I’m ready to be that leader I’ve always wanted to be and try to lead this team to a championship.”
“This is definitely the type of team that can compete, we’ve come a long way from last year. We’re taking everything our coaches are saying, and the group we have now is looking great,” Leslie said. “On Friday nights I’m ready to play ball, and all I’m thinking is that this is something I love to do. I’m out there playing for my family, playing for my teammates — especially going into senior year, this is an important year and I’m ready to show what I’m about this year, full-fledged. I’m taking it all in as much as I can, the practices, the weight room, the locker room. Once this season is over, my high school career is over — game nights, dinners with the team, all that stuff is important.”
Offensive lineman Paul Lombardo said the line is coming together, but of course it’s nice to have a running back like Mace who can wipe away mistakes with the type of talent he possesses.
“We’ve been growing together. It seems like we’ve been playing together forever. We’re growing together as a family, really building the bond, and now it’s time to ball out,” Lombardo said. “We try to put (our backs) in the best position, but if it’s always nice to know that if somebody makes a mistake, they can make it right.”
NEW FOCUS ON DEFENSE: What has plagued Mainland the past two seasons is the Mustangs’ inability to get off the field on third downs. That’s been a huge focus of preseason training camp, and Smith said the Stangs are much more athletic on that side of the ball, especially with a host of big freshmen coming in this year.
“We had about 70 kids back from last year’s team, only graduated seven, and they’ve been in the weight room and have matured. With boys, the way they change from their freshman year to their junior year is like night and day. And we have a big freshman class coming in with about 35 incoming freshmen. And I’d say about 15 of them are over 6-foot-2. It might be a bigger team than we’ve had the past two years, but to me, we’re are even more athletic than we’ve been. We have a lot of athleticism out there, even on our offensive and defensive lines. We’re not real big where we have 250-pounders, but we’re fast and quick up front,” he said. “We have to get out of third-and-long situations. We let too many people off the hook last year on third-and-long, and that bit us in the rear end the last couple of years. We’ve changed a couple things up on defense — coach Watson is the defensive coordinator — and I think one of his biggest things he wanted to bring to our defense this year is enthusiasm and an ‘attack’ mentality. That’s what we’ve really tried to instill in these guys — flying to the football, 11 hats within five yards of the ball all the time.
“We’ve been the nail for two seasons and it’s time for us to start being the hammer. We want to play with that kind of mental edge on the field.”
UNDERRATED POSITION GROUP: It has to be the defensive line. Mainland plays a three-man front, which means those guys have to take on a lot of double-team blocks from opposing offensive lines, and have to clog things up so the linebackers can run free to make tackles.
That line includes veteran players Nick Timek, Lombardo and Eric Ingram.
“The D-line doesn’t get a lot of attention because it’s a three-man front, but all those guys are returners from last year and their job is to take the heat of the second-level guys,” Smith said. “The experience the last two years of those three players is going to really show this year.”
SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN: Mainland starts things off in August at the Battle By The Beach, playing rival Egg Harbor Township at Ocean City’s Carey Stadium. They’ll return one week later to take on the Red Raiders, and you can bet Mainland has that game circled on its schedule. The Raiders beat Mainland 41-7 last year in the opening round of the state playoffs.
“I definitely want to get back at them. That’s a game we look forward to every year,” Leslie said. “I didn’t really know much about the rivalry (when I first transferred to Mainland), but then we started talking about it in meetings and when we actually played the game I just saw all the emotion and the fans getting geared up. I see how important it is to everybody, and it’s definitely a great tradition.”
Mainland also has some pretty tough road games this year. On Sept. 9 the Stangs travel to Oakcrest, which is looking to make a big rebound and has some very good athletes, and in October they travel to Clearview.
THE OUTLOOK: Mainland definitely has what it takes this year to improve on last year’s four-win season. This could be the start of another type of run like 2018-2019, when Mainland won 17 games in two seasons.
“This whole group has been together now for three years. We’d lose a couple kids here and there, but even a couple years ago everybody thought we might take it on the chin for a couple years then this year would be that year when we can turn the corner,” coach Smith said. “Every year is so different. Some years you have the guys and some years you don’t, but you’re always evolving and learning as a coach. Anybody who tells you they know everything and doesn’t go to clinics or talk to other people really doesn’t know anything and is just relying on the kids. This year we’ve really tried to instill getting better all around, with what we do defensively in our drills, what we’re doing on the offensive line. Every year you look forward to it, even when you have a young team. In those years I look forward to the teaching aspect of it and you hope down the road the kids mature. Everybody is really excited for this year because we have the guys who can do something. This is a great bunch of kids.”
Added Lombardo, “we’re trying to build together, work together, we’re taking it one game at a time and trying to be 1-0 every week.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays