By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Washington Township High School is one of the largest in South Jersey with more than 2,200 students. Even the campus is huge, as the building itself is more than a quarter mile long. The facilities are top notch, including the 2,500-seat Investors Bank Performing Arts Center where stars such as George Carlin, David Copperfield, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Jessica Simpson have all performed.
There’s no reason why the Minutemen shouldn’t be a top-notch high school football program, says third-year head coach Mike Schatzman. He knows Township can be a powerhouse, because it’s happened in the past. The team won sectional titles in 1987, 1992 and 1995. But recently the Minutemen have fallen on hard times, struggling to win a game or two each year. Schatzman believes he and the staff he has in place — coupled with a newfound dedication among the players — can help turn things around. It seems as though the rebound is already beginning, as Township posted a .500 record in a coronavirus-shortened 2020 season and is beginning to place kids into NCAA programs.
Schatzman has a lot of confidence that Washington Township can rekindle its glory days of the 80s and 90s, and the former Minutemen player is intent on doing what it takes to get this program to the next level. Township went 2-2 this past fall, beating Shawnee and Eastern while taking Kingsway into overtime. But in 2019 the Minutemen squandered a 3-2 start, dropping their final five games to finish at 3-7. Schatzman said it has been the lack of consistency that has hurt his team, and that’s a big focus this offseason — doing all the little things it takes now to build a consistently good team in the fall.
“It’s tough to say with this year and the COVID, but I think we would have been a playoff team and could have been a pretty high seed in South Jersey Group 5 had we had a full season. Year three, compared to Year One, there’s a big difference, and not just for me, but for the whole staff. There’s more consistency and the kids are hearing the same voices, and in years past we just haven’t had that because there was so much turnover. We had three coaches in three years at one point, so it was hard for the kids to get comfortable in any kind of system,” Schatzman said. “I think from 2018 to 2020 has been a big difference, just looking back and watching film to see how far we’ve come and how much better the kids have gotten. A lot of credit has to go to my staff and the kids for that, they’ve put in the work and been committed to it. The biggest thing for me is, when I got hired we had about 75 kids in the program and this past year we had 135, so that goes to show how kids are more excited to be a part of the program and how much they enjoy it. the coaches make it a great atmosphere.”
Schatzman’s mantra since he took over three years ago has been “leave the program better than you found it.” It’s a challenge to each incoming freshman class to outwork the previous one. That’s how the foundation for success will be laid in this program, brick by brick.
“We’ve had coach Schatzman since our freshman year, and on our first day of practice (four years ago) he said, ‘I want you guys to leave this program better than you found it.’ I think we did that,” said quarterback Liam Friel, a senior who will graduate in a few months. “I think Washington Township can compete for a championship very soon. There’s a lot of talent here, and I think we’re on the verge of something great very soon. I think it’s just going to come down to holding everyone accountable, making sure everyone is doing their job. It’s not just about what you do when it’s football season, it’s about all the things you do in the offseason when nobody is there watching. that’s what you have to do to be a championship, playoff football team. I think this team has a good group coming back and I think they can do big things.”
Fellow senior Jaden Allen, a defensive end and tight end who originally committed to Utah State before switching to Fordham, agrees with his teammate.
“I love every second of this. I love being under those Friday night lights. We’ve taken our lumps throughout the years, but this year we had something special going on,” Allen said. “The leadership on this team and getting everybody bought in has been great. This year, the team we have is so different than in past years. Everybody bought in and we wanted to win, bad. I think about this program every day. I set a goal for myself freshman year that I wanted to leave this program better than when I found it.”
Schatzman grew up around really good Washington Township football teams, and he wants to bring that spirit back to the sidelines every Friday night.
“Our town is made up of a blue-collar type of toughness and I think that’s what made us so successful in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s — we had a string of 35 or 40 years of really good football. My vision has been to bring that back. I want other teams to respect coming to our place and know they are going to get a game. I think that’s what any coach wants — you don’t want teams to circle you on their schedule as W’s; you want people to say, ‘oh, boy, we have Washington Township on our schedule and that’s going to be a battle,’” he said. “In the three years I’ve been the head coach we’ve had a signature win in all three. My first year we beat Hammonton in a really good game, and the following year they were playing in the sectional final and they’re always a really good program. Last year, we beat Eastern who has always been a tough opponent, we played Vineland to a 14-13 loss where we went for two at the end — so we were starting to learn how to win, and the kids wanted to win. And this year we beat Shawnee and followed that up by losing to Kingsway in double overtime. There have been some signature wins that I don’t think a lot of people anticipated. We’ve been competitive and I think that has to do with the mindset of where we want to go.
“The next step is consistency, staying on track and continuing to get the kids to believe,” Schatzman continued. “The biggest thing for me is our feeder program and keeping kids who play in our youth organization home. We’ve had a history of losing kids to private schools, which has hurt us. We’re centrally located to St. Joseph Academy, Paul VI, St. Augustine Prep and Gloucester Catholic. that makes things difficult, but my goal is to make kids want to play for us. that’s my speech when I talk to the youth kids and coaches. I played in that organization, so I’ve been around it my whole life. I want kids to want to come here and believe in what we’re doing, and we’ve been doing that. I understand (the private schools), they are trying to make their teams better, but my job is to make our own kids want to come here and be a part of our program and our school, and all the things we have to offer. There are a lot of good things here, not just football but academically and socially as well.”
Schatzman already is itching to get to the 2021 preseason, and for good reason. Township has a bunch of solid athletes returning and perhaps an all-South Jersey caliber running back in current junior Jo’Nathan Silver, a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder with speed and power.
“I have a genuine love for Washington Township High School and that made becoming the head coach easier. And the staff is like me, a lot of them are past players or teach in the building or live in the town. But you learn something new every day and the coaches who have been around for 40 years can tell you that. I’ve met with guys like Clyde Folsom and Tim Gushue; I try to pick something every day that can help make us better,” Schatzman said. “We’re excited. We have a really good group of seniors next year who have been with us since freshman year and have had some success. Jo’Nathan Silver is going to be a real-deal type of running back. He had seven touchdowns for us this year in just four games, so he’ll be a really good player for us and will have some interest from Division I schools. And we have a really big sophomore class that is well-rounded as far as linemen and skill guys. It’s probably the most complete group we’ve had in one class, and we had a really good freshman group this year, so we’re looking forward to the group we have coming in next year.”
Allen, Schatzman said, epitomizes what he wants this Township football program to be about — guys who grind for four years, put the work in and not only get rewarded with some wins on Friday nights, but the opportunity to continue playing at the collegiate level.
“The relationships and the bonds you create, (high school football) truly is a brotherhood. You’re around the coaches every day and we look at them as father figures. Being able to have people like that in your corner is an awesome feeling,” Allen said. “Township is a great school and I’ve created some relationships in this town that will last a lifetime. Everything about it, it’s a great school, and the football program — say what you want, we’ve taken our lumps, but we have something special going on. This school has it all, a great weight room, two turf fields, great equipment. We’re going to be a great program soon.”
“Guys like Jaden and some others put a lot of work in and were part of the rebuild,” said Schatzman, a 2008 graduate of the school. “They went through some difficult times and stayed loyal. That’s the goal for the next class — continue to build and do little things that make us better.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays