By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Absegami has one of the top two-way quarterbacks in South Jersey in senior Ray Weed, and some experience up front on the line. After that, though, there’s a whole lot of question marks for second-year head coach Chris Sacco and his staff.
Sacco came over to Absegami prior to the 2020 season after spending five years rebuilding Pleasantville from a winless team to a program that was competing for a South Jersey Group 2 championship. He’s hoping he can do the same thing with the Braves, who went 5-3 last fall in Sacco’s first season at Gami. The Braves lost big to Ocean City in the season opener but then ripped off five straight wins before falling to Pleasantville and Cedar Creek to close out the season.
Senior center and defensive lineman Jayden Barrow said the players are much more comfortable with the new coaching staff heading into this season, and that the Braves are looking for big things.
“It’s human nature to be uneasy with someone new, but we put our trust in him because he trusts us. It’s more comfortable now because we know he’s staying here and he’s willing to work with the guys. He has a good relationship with the players, and all the coaches do,” Barrow said. “This year is really going to be run by seniors and sophomores. We may not have the depth, but we have the heart and that’s going to make up for it. Our goals are the same as they’ve always been — to win and make the playoffs, and we’d like to have a home playoff game. Our goal is to win, and keep winning, keep the program clean and keep building a good base for the new guys coming in.”
How far the Braves can go this season rests squarely on the shoulders of Weed, a four-year starter who threw for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns last year while also rushing for more than 200 yards and another five scores. He’s the most talented and experienced player Sacco has on the roster.
“You have somebody who is a baller like that who can play offense and defense, he understands passing combinations, route combinations, coverages — he understands what we do in the run game and we put a lot on his plate there,” Sacco said. “Being able to walk in and have a guy like that helps alleviate a lot of things. Our skill guys are starting to step up. We just have to stay healthy and continue to improve week after week. As these inexperienced guys who are new to varsity get further along they are going to get better. We want to be playing our best ball in late October and early November.”
“Ray is a great player. He knows how to lead and he’s been doing that for four years because he had to take on that leadership role early on in his career,” Barrow added. “He knows how to work with the guys, he knows what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. He knows how to put a chip on a guy’s shoulder. He likes to talk guys up in the huddle to make sure they come out on the right foot. He’s been there, so we look up to him as a leader because he knows the kind of toughness it takes to get through. He has the passion for the game and that gets everybody else going.”
Last year, Weed had Jordan Marcucci to throw to more often than not. Marcucci finished with better than 300 yards receiving and caught more than half of Weed’s touchdown passes, so the Braves will have to find a way to replace that kind of production.
“I think we’re in a better position (than last year). We have a lot of guys out and we have two good young classes of freshmen and sophomores. We have some talented seniors and juniors mixing in, so I think we’ll be able to go out there and compete. We have to continue to build depth, which is our biggest concern — filling that depth behind the starters. It would be nice to get great results in Year Two, and that’s what we’re looking for, but ultimately — like we did at Pleasantville — we want to get better than we were the year before, and keep building from the bottom up. That’s where we’re at, and I think with the juniors and seniors we have, along with some talented sophomores, we should be able to compete,” Sacco said. “Justin Jackson is a senior and he’s looked good. Emir Chambers is a sophomore and he’s looked good in the preseason. Nyjere Robinson is a sophomore and he’s looked really good in scrimmages. Jordan (Marcucci) was a lot of our passing production last year and when teams went one-on-one with him we felt comfortable with whoever he was going against. So, some of these guys have to go out and prove they can be that type of guy. They have to go out and win one-on-one battles. That’s something we’re looking for, who can go do that? We have guys who can work the holes in a zone defense, but the ability to win one-on-ones is going to really put us at the next level.”
For now, Absegami will go with a running back-by-committee until somebody emerges as a featured back, but Sacco has some talent to work with in the backfield. Look for guys like Deandre Rooks and Ihsan Moore to get some carries, along with Weed.
“We’re going to be able to run the ball. We have Ray, who can run and throw, and three running backs, and we have some speed on the perimeter. I think we have more speed on the perimeter than we did last year, it’s just a question of if those guys can step up. I think our ceiling is very high, it’s just a matter of how quickly we can get there.”
Depth is going to be the biggest question mark for the Braves. Can Sacco and his staff develop players to fill in behind the starters while also trying to navigate a pretty tough schedule? Absegami opens up with Sacco’s alma mater, Hammonton, and also has the likes of Ocean City, Cedar Creek and Clearview on the schedule. Sacco said it’s important for Absegami to start beefing up the schedule now so that his young players understand that the goal of this program is to be one of the best in South Jersey.
“I have nothing but respect for (coach Jim) Raso and the Hammonton program. I played there and coached there, I know the way they do things and I really respect what they do. That’s why we agreed to this game,” Sacco said of the nonconference matchup. “I told our players that we want to play great programs. If you want to be a great program, if you want to be on the map, you have to play, compete against and ultimately beat great programs. We went out and got them, we went out and got Clearview. We tried to beef up the schedule a little bit. We have Ocean City, Cedar Creek. How we do against those kinds of teams will determine of we are worthy of being in the playoffs.”
Barrow said Gami’s success will come down to how quickly the young players can mature on the varsity level.
“We have to be mature. Our team is very young and a lot of these guys haven’t even gotten varsity snaps yet. We know they are ready, we just have to see how it’s going to play out,” he said. “If we’re down by two touchdowns in the first quarter, how are the young guys going to react? But I feel like we’ll be fine. We have a very close squad here.”
Absegami 2021 Schedule (Home games in BOLD)
August 27 vs. Hammonton, 6
Sept. 3 at Atlantic City, 6
Sept. 10 at Ocean City, 6
Sept. 17 vs. Cedar Creek, 6
Sept. 24 vs. Egg Harbor Township, 6
October 1 at Pemberton, 7
October 8 at Bridgeton, 7
October 22 vs. Seneca, 6
October 29 vs. Clearview, 6
November 24 vs. Oakcrest, 6