By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
There are so many little things that go into building a successful high school football program, and when a team is able to win a state championship there are people behind the scenes who are the reason said team is able to go shopping for rings in the offseason.
Stacey Lucero, 17 years old, and Jecilia Morales, 16, didn’t get a chance to play in varsity playoff games as Woodbury made a historic run to become the first true state champion in New Jersey history this past fall, but everything they did leading up to the Thundering Herd’s 31-7 win over Mountain Lakes in the Group 1 state championship game on Dec. 3 helped lay the foundation for the best season in school history.
Wait, you’re saying these girls played football? They weren’t part of the band or cheerleading squad?
That’s right, the duo became football players this year — much to the surprise of their teammates and coaches.
“I’ve never had that before (on a team I’ve played on) so it was kind of shocking to see girls who were willing to put in the work. We thought they wouldn’t be out here that long, they’ll leave, they’ll quit. But they are strong. They come out here and work hard every single day,” said head coach Anthony Reagan Sr., who was named the state’s Coach of the Year after leading Woodbury to a 12-2 record and a state title. “We thought they were team managers at first so we didn’t really know what was going to happen when they came up and said, ‘we’re here to play football.’ We were all like, ‘for real?’ That shocked us for a minute. They’ve put in the work. They can do more push-ups than a lot of boys, they are running routes better than some boys can. They come out here every single day, they never miss a practice. They are committed. This is a very physical sport so we didn’t think they could come out here and hold their own, but they shocked us. That showed us that if they put the work in, you can’t doubt females.
“They made it through the entire summer and they gained the respect of the entire football team,” he added. “At that point, there was no turning back. They earned their stripes by putting in the work. They were dedicated every single day and to me, that was impressive.”
“I got interested in football because of field hockey. I’d watch the boys all the time because the fields are right next to each other. I told my field hockey coach that I wanted to play football (this year) and she was like, ‘you’re not playing that.’ But I decided to sign myself up and (coach Reagan) took me in. I don’t think he really believed me at first, but I came out here in summer workouts and just kept doing it,” Lucero, a junior, said. “When I first got hit, it was a really different experience. You have to get right back up because if not people are going to think you are weak. You get bruises out here. Some boys can really hit you, and (they don’t take it easy) because you are a female. They can tell you are a female even though you’re wearing a helmet.”
Morales said playing Powder Puff football sparked her interest, and, like Lucero, she initially thought she might be in a little bit over her head.
“Last year, I got interested in it through the Powder Puff game and I loved running routes and doing all the stuff to get prepared for Powder Puff, so I was like, ‘why not just do the real sport?’ Because I’m not soft. I don’t mind the contact. Getting nicks and bruises doesn’t bother me. I have no problem doing all the work it took to get us where we are,” said Morales, a sophomore. “After the first practice I was so tired and I was like, ‘do I really want to keep doing this?’ But I pushed myself to this point because if I really want something I’m going to keep pushing and grinding for it.”
Lucero and Morales put in the work during summer practice and eventually began getting into some games on the junior varsity level. Their biggest value came as scout team players, running the plays of that week’s opposition to help stars like senior linebacker Derron Moore get prepared.
“In the beginning we were all doing the same with our strength and conditioning program, so that helped them get acclimated to how we do things in the offseason,” Reagan Sr. explained. “Then, we discussed as we headed into the season that we were going to use some time to develop them and not just throw them out onto the field. We wanted to continue to teach them football, and we made sure when they got into games they were protected. Derron and Dominic (Abbatelli, senior linebacker) were two guys in particular who made sure they were right next to them in practice to help them build their confidence. They were saying, ‘hey, you’re out here with us, no worries, just go out and play.’ And that helped them a lot.”
Their fiery attitudes and willingness to put in the work and tough it out through pain and discomfort endeared Lucero and Morales to their new teammates in no time at all.
“Morales is a firecracker. And she’s a perfectionist. If she does a drill wrong, she wants to do it again. If she hits the sled the wrong way she wants to hit it again. There is no back-down in her,” Reagan Sr. said. “And Stacey is similar, she works hard every day and continues to get better. We saw that in the summer when we were running through 7-on-7s, she was identifying things. Those two ladies are definitely a major part of our football team.”
“Personally, I feel like they have done so much for us,” said Moore, who is headed to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh next fall on a football scholarship. “They are part of the scout team and they just fit right in with us. I’m blessed to have them on the team. I love them like my little sisters, and we’ve taken them in as one of us. These girls have really stepped up and it makes us think that if they can do it, why can’t other females do it? I’m proud of them. They are going to keep doing their thing.”
Both girls said they are determined to stick with football next year and continue playing until their high school careers are over. They aren’t the type to back down to any challenge.
“This has helped my confidence a lot. At first there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with me playing football, but I just kept doing it even though I had a lot of people doubting me. I have my team on my side and my coaches. My mom didn’t want me to do this at all, but now she supports me a lot,” said Lucero, who also plays softball. “This is a really great feeling (to win a championship). Not a lot of people get this opportunity and I’m thankful to have it, to be out here with the boys. Of course I’ll be back next year.”
“It’s always something new with football, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s unpredictable, and I like that. With football, everything happens so fast,” said Morales, a linebacker and receiver. “It’s intimidating, but at this point, I’ve gotten myself into this so if I want to do this I have to put up with whatever the boys bring. I’m going to stick with it all through high school. Once the season is over I’m going to go into flag football to stay consistent with it.”
Coach Reagan said these young ladies probably don’t even realize how important what they are doing is, and that they are laying the groundwork for other young female athletes to feel like if they can believe it, they an achieve it.
“(The boys) view them as peers. These girls put in the same work and were as committed (as the boys) to be successful. Our guys really took them on as family, and that’s one of the biggest things we talk about when we’re talking about ‘The Woodbury Way’ is family. It was like they became their sisters and the guys were going to do whatever they could to make sure they were successful. It brought a new perspective. If we’re able to demonstrate this as a football team, that will continue to trickle down into our school community where boys will see there can be more open lines of communication and more acceptance as far as being able to have females playing football. In that aspect, they became leaders by showing we’re all in this together, whether male or female — race doesn’t matter — if you’re a part of this football team, you’re a part of the team and a family and we’re all connected,” Reagan Sr. said. “In the same way that we talk about Derron as somebody who is creating a legacy, I think they’ll do the same thing and they’ll have other young ladies saying ‘it’s possible for me to do this and not put limits on myself.’ Because of that, they’ll be able to leave high school and take on challenges that many people say they can’t. Knowing what they learned throughout our program and their time in football they know they can tackle any obstacle and achieve any dream they set out for themselves. (Our success) shows that their dedication, hard work and commitment paid off. They really took on the identity of our football team as far as their toughness and their sacrifice and willingness to do anything it takes for us to be successful. That was a major component in our success.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
FOOTBALL: Woodbury’s Stacey Lucero, Jecilia Morales always ready to tackle any obstacle
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN