by Andrew Garda
August has arrived in Montclair, which means Mountie football is here as well. The Montclair High School football team took to Woodman Field for the first official practice of the preseason Monday morning with an eye towards repeating as state sectional champions again this season.
The 2018 season will see the Mounties play their earliest regular-season game ever, with the opener slated for Thursday night, Aug. 30, at West Orange. That means the team has to be focused and ready to go from jump, and they hit the ground running Monday morning.
It was a mixed bag, as first days tend to be. There was plenty of success, but there were also some stumbles.
Sometimes an offensive lineman missed a responsibility, sometimes there was a miscue on what the play was and occasionally the wrong route was run.
That last part resulted in a pick-six by defensive line coach Henry Wilson, who only had to run five yards and was able to take advantage of the utter shock of the offensive players.
For coach John Fiore, entering his ninth year as the Mounties head coach, this was to be expected.
“It’s kind of what I thought,” said Fiore, who boasts a 77-17 record and four state titles over his first eight seasons. “We had some kids that were ready to roll and we had a good first team for the most part.”
Some of the struggles were because starters were sidelined. Lineman Bo Bigelow was out with a stomach issue, linebacker Willie Matthews had scraped his foot over the weekend and Kyshawn King was nursing a sore leg.
Fiore needs those players in the lineup for reasons other than their football skill, though that is critical as well: if the Mounties are to repeat their championship, they need the senior leadership to step up.
Despite the loss of irreplaceable senior leaders like Bucknell-bound quarterback Tarrin Earle, the seniors who step forward this year can learn from the example of last year’s graduating class.
The style of leadership might change, but the focus can’t.
“[Quarterback Charles] Murphy will do a great job. Willie is a year older and he’s better. Gary Robinson is a year older and he’s better,” Fiore said.
In a lot of ways, this is old territory for Fiore and his staff.
“When Khalif Herbin and all them graduated [after the 2011 season], and we lost in that state final, everybody thought we were dead,” the coach said. “The next year we went 12-0 with Nate [Crutchfield] and Mike Million.”
Million rolled for 1,944 yards and 20 touchdowns and Crutchfield threw for 1,346 and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
In other words, you reload.
“It’s about us coming back and just duplicating that,” Fiore said. “Danny Webb was Danny Webb. Khalif Herbin was Khalif Herbin. You replace it differently.”
Defense will especially be important, and as such, the leadership in that unit is critical.
Matthews and fellow rising senior Josh Crawford did a lot of chirping during Tuesday’s defense-focused practice, but also made sure they kept the unit in line.
The defensive line also showed that leadership.
The slogan for this year is “No brother left behind,” and the line seemed to take that seriously Tuesday.
Several lineman struggled to finish their end-of-practice runs and after the post-practice meeting, chose to make them up. Led by the seniors, nearly every defensive lineman ran with them supporting the players who were struggling, encouraging them and pushing them along.
It may be a different group of seniors than the 2017 version, but it seems as though this class took some lessons from their forebears.
Key to repeating
Along with keeping the team’s leadership on point, the coaching staff has their own work to do. They have to find the next stars on both sides of the ball, as well as adjust to the changing personnel as well.
Along with Charles Murphy Jr. taking over quarterback duties and Josh Crawford moving more consistently to the backfield, Bigelow should be stepping into Marcus Crowell’s considerable cleats at left tackle. Kyshawn King and his brother, Walt, will be filling in at wide receiver, helping to replace guys like Collin Callahan, D.J. Williams and Tysean Williams. Shawn Collins will likely take over for Elias Ottens.
Some positions, like defensive line, are thick with players who can step up. Others, like linebacker, need some more support. And some, like cornerback, weren’t an issue, but became one.
Junior Max Jennings informed the team on Monday that he was withdrawing from MHS and attending Hotchkiss School in Lakeview, Conn., playing football for the school and club soccer in the spring for Black Rock FC Prep Academy. Jennings had the inside track on starting at cornerback and playing lots of wide receiver.
“That leaves us a little barren there,” Fiore said. “We have to figure some guys out, quickly.”
Regardless of who he has on the team, the method for MHS success has been the same for Fiore’s entire tenure.
“Our approach for nine years has been hard work, teaching kids football so they know how to react in situations and when we have the talent, to utilize it.,” Fiore said.
“There’s a formula to win football games, and we’ve got to use that formula. Less mistakes than the other team, less penalties, less turnovers. Usually you can win those games. Maybe we don’t win by 45, but we win by 14.”
As far as Montclair’s coaching staff is concerned, a win is a win.
Another challenge in the quest for a repeat championship comes down to simple numbers.
This year the Mounties have a varsity roster of 60 players, the lowest Fiore has seen at the school.
“I think this will be the first time since I’ve taken over that we’re under 100 kids in the football program,” Fiore said, factoring in a freshman class of roughly 30-35 players. “Which makes our coaching even more important, because we have so many kids that are first-time football players as seniors, juniors, sophomores. Kids coming out for the first time.”
Part of the problem, Fiore knows, is that numbers have been down in Montclair’s two youth football programs, the Cobras and Bulldogs. That means fewer experienced football players coming up into the high school.
And because those numbers are down, more out of town kids play for both youth programs, and those kids aren’t going to Montclair High School.
This year’s senior class is a strong one both in talent and numbers, but the past two years have had very low numbers.
“You look at Kyshawn’s class, we only had eight kids from Montclair who played eighth grade football,” Fiore said. “So, we inherited eight freshmen who played football. And we’re beating the hallways in the building [to find kids] and got it up to 19 or 20 that year. But that catches up with you.”
While the numbers have been down the last few years, Fiore sees the trend reversing with this incoming freshman class.
“This freshman class is going to end up between 30 and 35 and that’s consistently where we’ve been almost every year except for the last two years which has been an anomaly,” he said. “I think we’re bouncing back.”