By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
There are any number of cliches that high school football coaches have turned to for decades when asked by the media about their best players.
“He’s a throwback, lunch-pail type of player.”
“He’s the kind of kid who is the first one to practice and the last one to leave.”
“Nobody works harder than him, both on and off the field.”
“Without him, we wouldn’t be the type of team we are today.”
And the list goes on and on. Most times, coaches are at least being somewhat genuine when they rattle off a few of these to speed along the interview process so they can get back to watching film. But if you ask Ocean City skipper Kevin Smith about senior linebacker and running back Jake Inserra, there is passion in his voice and he’ll rip off every cliche in the book if he has to in order to get a reporter to understand how valuable No. 45 has been to the Red Raiders’ program the past four years.
“He’ll be missed, to say the least. He was like having a coach on the field. He understood everything so well in terms of schemes, but more than that he was a great locker room kid and a great leader,” Smith said. “I haven’t been around too many kids like him as a coach. We’re desperately going to miss him, no doubt. He was a special kid (as a freshman). You knew who Jake Inserra was. To give you an idea of who Jake Inserra is — he’s the kid who, as an eighth grader, when most eighth graders are terrified of the high school football coach because he represents something so much bigger than them, he would walk right up to you and introduce himself and shake your hand like a man. He was that kid.
“He started for us as a sophomore at linebacker and at the time he got hurt he was our leading tackler. So, he would have been our leading tackler as a sophomore and ended up being just that as a junior and senior.”
Inserra was having a tremendous sophomore season as a starting linebacker before a broken collarbone in Week 6 derailed his campaign. But he came back stronger than ever as a junior and led Ocean City on an improbable run to the South Jersey Group 4 championship game, where the Red Raiders fell to Shawnee.
“I knew I was going to be starting again and building off my sophomore year and what I had already learned. We were graduating a ton of seniors (before the 2019 season) so I had to step up and be a leader my junior year,” said Inserra, who also is an outstanding lacrosse player. “My freshman year, that year was the first time the varsity team had made the playoffs in a long time and I got moved up the last few weeks of that year and I got to see how we were getting better, practicing hard and the culture we were building. My sophomore year, we built off that even more, and everything really came together my junior year. We knew we had a lot of juniors that year and our class was going to be pretty strong. We felt like we were getting slept on by critics and other teams around the state, but we just kept working hard.
“This year, we knew we were going to be good because we didn’t really graduate that many guys. Pretty much everything has been building up the past couple of years.”
For a lot of teams, going 9-3 and beating teams like Mainland Regional and Long Branch in the state playoffs might be a flash in the pan, but Ocean City has steadily been building its program year after year, on a foundation of guys just like Inserra — a 5-foot-9, 190-pound bruiser who gets the most out of his size by grinding every day during the offseason and working hard in the film room. This year, the Red Raiders proved they were here to stay, as they spent much of the year in the Glory Days Magazine Best 11 rankings and finished the year 6-2. They could have played for a West Jersey Football League “pod” championship but Camden pulled out of the postseason due to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, during Inserra’s three years on varsity, Ocean City put up a 19-11 record.
“Honestly, one of the biggest things is we really did practice like a team. I know it sounds like a cliche, but we really didn’t have a lot of all-stars or star players, and a lot of teams overlooked us while we just kept working hard. Our film preparation and our practices I’m sure were better than other teams. Everybody went really hard every minute of practice,” Inserra said. “I knew I had a lot of goals coming out of my junior season. I knew I wanted to have 100 tackles (in 2020), but once the season started getting shortened — and after losing my junior lacrosse season last spring — I was just hoping to have a season. One of my goals was to go undefeated, which, we didn’t quite get there, but we had some statement wins that I was happy about. We knew with our team, and especially our senior class, that we were one of the better teams around, and to finally start getting some credit for it was a testimony to how hard we had been working. We were hyped up about getting credit and seeing ourselves in the Top 15 polls, and we wanted to keep winning and doing our part to stay up there each week.”
This year, Inserra was honored with a Mini-Max award, which recognizes players for football performance, academics and community service. Not only was Inserra the Raiders’ leading tackler but he also was the No. 1 running back this past season, and he plans to continue his education at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite all the accolades, however, he knows his numbers were a product of a really good defensive line, which freed him up to roam the field and make tackles.
“They make my job really easy, (Matt) Christie, (Mike) Gray, (Mike) Rhodes and (Will) Drain, they take on a ton of double teams and they are big, huge, athletic guys, so that lets me run free to the ball,” he said. “They made my life easier and I don’t think they got the credit they deserved. The tackles the linebackers were making were all due to the work those guys were putting in. They don’t get the praise they should but they were a huge part of our defense. our front seven was really able to stop the run this year and that’s a testament to how great those guys were up front.”
Still, Inserra was a captain and leader in every sense of the word, and that’s something he says comes naturally to him being that his dad, John, is a state trooper and mom, Michelle, a teacher.
“That definitely comes from growing up with my mom, dad, brother and sister. My mom and dad have been installing the values of hard work in us since we were in elementary school. I saw my brother do it throughout high school and now my sister is doing the same thing. that’s definitely how we were raised and how my parents told us to work hard. And I also had a lot of guys above me, like Arthur Spackman and Brandon Lin, who had those same values of hard work. I’ve had a lot of great role models in front of me,” Inserra said. “Ever since I was in second grade my dad has been drilling me with the value of hard work, and how good things come when you work hard, so I’ve always grown up like that. It comes from my parents teaching me that since I was a young kid.
“I do enjoy being a leader and I feel like I can be a good role model to younger kids, and I like helping them out. Being a captain is really about putting your team in a good position to win, but also making sure they have good morals as well. I try to show up early and show the team how to work hard so they can copy that example,” he added. “Being a leader came pretty naturally to me. The biggest challenge for some guys is to sort of hone in on what you’re good at. Not every leader has to be vocal. Brandon Lin wasn’t the most vocal guy but he was probably the best leader on our team, just from his actions. If you’re a good speaker, you have to speak, if you’re a hard worker you have to work hard and lead by example. It comes down to who you are and being true to yourself, and if you are people will follow that.”
Coach Smith said he has no doubt that Inserra will not only be a huge success at Penn, but with whatever he hopes to accomplish after college as well.
“He’s going to go to Penn, so he’s no dummy. Football, for him — I don’t want to say it defined who he was, but he definitely took pride in being a football player. I know he feels like he benefited from being around the coaching staff and having the opportunity to be in a disciplined environment,” Smith said. “His father would tell us all the time about how much he talked about having a purpose and being excited about getting up in the morning, knowing there was a goal in mind that he wanted to achieve. I think that has carried over into other aspects of his life. He’s a very goal-oriented kid. And when you’re going to a school like Penn, when you’re goal-oriented, that can set you up for the rest of your life.
“You know how we get when we get older, we get sentimental for the way things used to be — the whole back-in-the-day thing,” Smith added. “Jake is the epitome of the back-in-the-day player. He would have looked great in the old one-bar facemask and the shoulder pads that were too big, he would have fit right in during those times.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays