By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The Atlantic City High football team was feeling pretty good about itself after an early season, 50-13 win over Absegami. But the Vikings got a wake-up call — and perhaps one they needed — the following week as highly touted Mainland Regional came into town and gave the boys in blue a 47-18 pounding. The Stangs rushed for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns against Atlantic City’s defense, but instead of breaking the Vikings, the loss seems to have galvanized them.
Since that setback, Atlantic City has ripped off three straight wins, scoring at least 45 points in all three games while allowing a grand total of just 24 points.
The stars of the show so far this season have been quarterback Joe Lyons and receiver Sah’nye “Ice Cup” Degraffenreidt. Lyons has completed nearly 100 passes for 1,600-plus yards and 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions, while Degraffenreidt has 26 receptions for 555 yards and nine touchdowns. In all, the Vikings have racked up more than 2,000 yards and 29 touchdowns while posting a 6-1 record.
“I felt like we had this kind of team. I thought we had a better chance against the team that we lost to, but that’s just something that we need to go back and work on,” said head coach Keenan Wright. “Things that are happening now, we pretty much expected. At the skill positions we are pretty loaded, and Joe Lyons commands offense. He’s engaged. He doesn’t miss a day. He’s a leader, he’s a captain. He’s just all-around a great kid. And we have other guys, too. Obviously Ice Cup is a tremendous talent, a Power 5 kid who can play multiple positions, and Raul Cabrera can play multiple positions. We have some guys and we think we can make some noise in Group 5.”
Offensively the Vikings can be scary with the type of weapons they have. Senior Dre Rooks is a very good running back and along with Ice Cup, Lyons has targets like Mikel Jones, Shawn Williams and Cabrera to go to. Wright said he gives Lyons, a very experienced high school quarterback, a lot of room to improvise and go with his gut if he sees something that will work against a particular defense.
“One of the things we want to stay away from is controlling too much, because decision-wise our quarterback — he’s got it,” Wright said. “He has to go through his progressions and he’s got to figure it out. Very rarely do I tell Joe who to look for. When he gets the coverage he looks at the matchup and then he makes the decision. At the end of the day, we’re not out on the field with the kids, so they have to make the plays.”
Atlantic City’s success isn’t a flash in the pan, this is a team that has been building for several years. Last season, the Vikings went 7-3 and lost to Lenape in the South Jersey Group 5 semifinals, 21-20. That came on the heels of a season two years ago in which the Vikings went 3-7 and lost their final six games. Wright said the success his players are seeing now is the result of years of hard work in the offseasons.
“I think the biggest difference is buying into the culture. People talk about culture all the time, but culture isn’t something that you talk about, culture is something that you actively participate in and you do,” he said. “That goes into the offseason. The district invested in a state-of-the-art weight room and we put it to use. It’s not necessarily about getting kids bigger or stronger — obviously, that’s a part of it — but we’re showing up at 5:30 a.m. workouts when it’s hot, when it’s the offseason, when you don’t want to. That shows that you’re buying in, you know? (The weight room) is basically our cultural incubator. That’s where you get that toughness from. I think we’re just a tougher team than we’ve been in the past.”
The Vikings’ toughness will be put to the test in the coming weeks. They have a bye this week before hosting Oakcrest on Oct. 20, then it’s on to the state playoffs.
Wright says he has an important message for his players: “keep your foot on the gas,” he said. “We have an opportunity to get a couple more wins this year to go into the playoffs and hopefully get a home playoff game. You have Toms River North and some other really good teams, but we can’t look ahead. You have to play one day at a time and one opponent at a time. You can’t look past anybody. That’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s something we have to work on.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays