By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

How do you top a 13-0 season and a regional championship the following year? If you have the answer to that question, call up Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City and ask to speak to head football coach James Melody.

Everything went right for the Pirates a year ago — J.C. Landicini developed into a record-setting quarterback; bruising running back Ja’Quan Howard, a transfer from Pleasantville, turned into one of the most feared backs in South Jersey; the defense pitched four shutouts to start the season and had five overall, and only Winslow, Delsea and Woodrow Wilson were able to score more than a touchdown against Cedar Creek. Senior wideout JoJo Bermudez showed each week why the University of Cincinnati offered him a scholarship.

Up and down the lineup guys had career years for Cedar Creek in 2021.

Now, it’s a whole different ball game, as nearly two dozen players have graduated from the first 13-0, undefeated team in school history. There will be a lot of new faces this year, and those guys who didn’t get a lot of playing time last year will have to step up early and often, because the Pirates don’t play a cupcake schedule. The Pirates will take on the likes of Ocean City, Camden Eastside (formerly Woodrow Wilson), St. Joseph Academy, Delsea — some serious South Jersey heavyweights.

Wide receiver Alim Parks likely will be a frequent target in the passing game of new Cedar Creek quarterback Billy Smith. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“We’re thinking that we have to lock in and work together as a team. We have to improve because we’ll definitely have a target on our backs based on the season we had last year,” said senior linebacker DeJuan Palmer. “We want to try to repeat that (13-0 record), but right now we just have to work and take it one week at a time. We can’t look into the future like that. We have to try to win each game, each week.”

Melody said the Pirates aren’t shying away at all from pressure and expectations. That’s what this program was built on under former head coach Tim Watson, and Melody said his goal is to continue that winning tradition every year.  

“That’s the biggest thing as a program, you want to have sustained success. You don’t just want to be good one year and that’s it. Our kids are buying into that and they’ve done a really good job this offseason. We stepped off the field Dec. 4 and we were back in the weight room Dec. 15. I’m excited for their opportunity. We graduated about 17 starters, and these kids were chomping at the bit to get their opportunity. Now it’s here, and I’m excited for them, and I think the work they’ve put in will show,” Melody said. “With public school football you run into (lean years) every now and then, but if you have a culture and a solid foundation in place it makes it easier because the kids know what the expectation is, and they know they have to go out and work hard for it. We have a saying here, ‘everything is earned, nothing is given.’ They have to go out and get it every day, and I think you see that in our practices. We compete at a high level, whether it’s the scout team or the starting team. We want to get our best going against our best every day. That’s important, but culture is the most important thing; holding onto that standard that we set for them.”

NEW FACES ON OFFENSE: Landicini set all kinds of records last year as a quarterback for the Pirates, so new signal caller Billy Smith has a lot to live up to. But coach Melody thinks the junior is ready to take on the role, and he’s probably right. Smith is athletic, can run, and has a very accurate arm on throws all over the field.  

“He puts pressure on himself because he has high expectations for himself. He’s a very good kid. His freshman and sophomore years he was a sub-varsity player for us, and he’s one of those kids who waited his turn and now he’s ready. He throws the football really well, he’s poised, he’s a good leader and he’s a vocal kid. We have a lot of talent on that side of the ball and sometimes it’s hard when you have a lot of guys in your ear saying ‘get me the football,’ but he does a good job of sticking with his progressions and making really good throws,” Melody said. “He’s a throwback, old-school type of kid. He’s physically tough, but he’s also mentally tough and I think that’s important to have as a quarterback. That’s the kind of kid J.C. was for us last year. He was physically tough but also mentally tough, and if he made a mistake he just went on to the next play. I think Billy is at that level right now as well.”

The Pirates’ coaching staff is also itching to see what running back Mekhi Harvey can do. He was very impressive in limited action last year behind Howard but certainly has the potential to develop into one of the top backs in South Jersey. He averaged nearly 10 yards per carry last year on his 31 carries.

“I’m very excited to see him. We would throw him in late in games last year and he would take off, and now we’ll have that for four quarters. He should blow up this year,” Palmer said.

“He’s a kid who spelled Ja’Quan last year, and he’s another one of the kids who I talk about waiting their turn and now he has his opportunity,” Melody said. “Physically, he’s a stout kid. He’s strong and he plays physically, but he’s also very fast and a patient running back. He’s a kid we’re really excited for. When you talk about having sustained success in a program, that’s what happens sometimes, a kid has to wait his turn and when they get their opportunity they are ready to make the most of it.”

Mekhi Harvey had more than 300 yards rushing last year in a reserve running back role, but he’ll get a lot more carries this year as the featured back in the Pirates’ offense. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

SAME MINDSET ON DEFENSE: The Pirates lost a lot from a defense that shut just about everybody down, but have a couple of big-time players back in the likes of Palmer, Justin Castillo and Malik Moore-Summers.

“Last year, we competed so hard. I feel like our best competition was us at practice. Throughout the whole season, our greatest competition was us against us, and we need that again. We need that teamwork. Once we do that and start to click, I think we’ll be fine,” Palmer said. “I think our biggest strong suit is what we have, talent-wise. We have a great defensive line, defensive backs, receivers. We did lose some great linebackers from last year, so we have to get our new linebackers to come in and play just like those guys did.”

“We just have to fly around. We always hustle to the ball carrier, every single play, every possession,” added Moore-Summers. “We saw what it took last year to go 13-0. We know what it takes and we’ve been around that atmosphere, we just have to go at each other and compete every day.”

UNDERRATED POSITION GROUP: Melody says its his linebacking corps. Gone are the likes of C.J. Resto and Elijah Usher, but Castillo, now a junior, got a lot of time last year and he’ll team up with Palmer and Mike Sears, who moves over from the offensive line to play the sam linebacker spot.

“With the graduation of C.J. Resto and Elijah Usher people will think there’s going to be a dropoff, but we have some very physical kids,” Melody said. “DeJuan Palmer being one of them, Justin Castillo being another one, and Mike Sears is moving from center to linebacker. I think that position group is going to be pretty strong.”

SCHEDULE BREAKDOWN: The big test for the Pirates will be late September into October, when Cedar Creek has five straight games against Ocean City, Camden Eastside (formerly Woodrow Wilson, the team the Pirates beat in the regional championship game in 2021), Salem, St. Joseph Academy and Delsea Regional. Salem on Sept. 24 will be a very tough road game, and Cedar Creek also must contend with what should be a much improved Oakcrest team in late October.

THE OUTLOOK: Going 13-0 again might be a tough ask for a team with only a handful of starters back, but this team shouldn’t drop off too far. There is plenty of talent left in the cupboard. The Pirates will get an up-close look at what it means to be the hunted, rather than the hunter.  

“That doesn’t faze me at all because we’re still hunting, too,” Moore-Summers said. “We want to keep our spot (at the top) and solidify that spot. Nothing is given, it’s earned. Like coach says, we’re reloading, not rebuilding. We have a lot of talent all around the field, and now we have to show everybody what we can do with that talent.

“You have to grow every day. We tell our kids to try to get a little bit better each day, and as coaches we try to get a little bit better each day,” Melody said. “I’ve been coaching for a long time and I understand the ebbs and flows, but we attack each day with purpose. If you can attack each week with a championship mentality, the chips will fall where they may and good things will happen. I’ve been through the ringer. When I first got here, we were 1-5 right off the bat, and that’s something you learn from. Going 13-0, is it hard to duplicate that? Obviously it is, but we’re not trying to do that right now. We’re just trying to be the best version of ourselves right now and get better each day”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays