by Andrew Garda
The 2019 Immaculate Conception High School football team is looking to build on a very successful 2018. The Lions compiled a 5-5 overall record and made the NJSIAA Non-Public, Group 2 playoffs for the first time since the program spent a season as a junior varsity-only program in 2014.
The No. 8-seeded Lions lost to top seeded — and eventual group champion — St. Joseph (Hammond). That’s nothing to hang your head about considering the Wildcats were ranked No. 20 in the state and draw it’s team from a population of 371 versus ICHS’ 230.
Those numbers make a difference, and they are just one of the hurdles head coach John Finnegan faces as the Lions head into the 2019 football season.
Another challenge? Getting the players to commit to doing things the right way.
“I’d say the biggest challenge right now is getting them into proper practice habits,” Finnegan said during a recent practice. “Coming every day, working hard, getting on the field on time. That’s been the biggest challenge and surprise to me. There’s a core group of kids that get it. But there are some other kids that don’t get it. So, a frustration I have now is that. Getting the kids to buy in on how to do things the right way, how to get ready for life after football. Being on time, working hard and the values you get out of the game.”
The coach said that he views those values as more than just football values.
“I look at it as part of my job to get them ready [for life],” he said. “To understand what’s the proper way to do things. What are some work ethic things you have to have in order to get a job, keep a job and get through school and college.”
Finnegan said they’re getting it, and is optimistic they will come around.
“They’re good kids. There are kids that come to work, there are just some habits that are getting better and we’re working on them,” he said.
This is the second go-around at ICHS for Finnegan, who was Immaculate’s head coach from 1986 to 2002. He was then head coach at Seton Hall Prep from 2003 through 2014 before taking time off to spend with family.
Now that he’s back, Finnegan is looking at a team that has a lot of talent, even with Isas Waxter playing football at Villanova University this fall.
His roster may not be deep at 28 players, but there are some players here, he said.
It starts with the backfield and offensive line.
“I like the backfield,” said Finnegan. “Chris Jones, Kody [Gibbs], Amilkar Love. Calvin Gordon. We have a nice strong backfield.”
Gibbs, who is also a tremendous sprinter in track, will bring electric speed to the backfield and give the team a chance for a lot of different offensive looks.
Finnegan will lean on the backs quite a bit as he moves away from last season’s spread offense to more of a run and play-action look.
“That’s been a challenge working over the summer to get that in, but they are picking it up. Physically they fit into what we want to do offensively.”
To have success running like that, the offensive line has to be solid, and Finnegan feels they more than meet that criteria.
“We have the nucleus for a strong line. Obviously in Group 1 there’s not a lot of depth but we have the capability to have a pretty good group. Thomas Panetta, Chase Davis, and his brother Shawn Davis are doing a good job on the line.”
While a roster of 27 might not give a coach much wiggle room in terms of depth, especially on the offensive line where size matters, the Lions offensive linemen look the part. They’re big – all over 200 pounds – and in practice they look to have the power and speed off the snap to give the opposition fits.
While the backfield and offensive line have formed up, the battle for quarterback continues to be waged in practice. Gibbs was the signal caller last season, but it appears as though Finnegan is using him more in the backfield.
Finnegan said the staff is still deciding between Tyree Young and DeShawn Knight. Both players can move as well as throw the ball, and the Lions just need to decide where their talents best serve the team on offense. Gibbs could also factor in as well, given his previous experience.
The team also has a lot of talent on defense, most of which is also playing offense due to the small roster.
“We’re pretty much the same offensively and defensively, a lot of the same kids are going to go both ways,” Finnegan said. “The backs are mostly the backers. The receivers and the quarterbacks are comprising the secondary. I think they’re a pretty good group too. They’re quick and mobile.”
The large offensive line will also serve as the foundation for the defensive line, where their size should help plug up running lanes. Finnegan is especially excited for Keith Rivera, who will play defensive end.
“He had some real good stats last year and puts real good pressure on,” he said.
The team starts off with a home game against cross-town rival Montclair Kimberley Academy. The game is entering its third year and ICHS is coming off a tight 12-7 win after losing the first game in the series 32-28 in 2017.
“I think that’s a nice opener,” Finnegan said. “MKA is a good opener, a Thanksgiving type game. It’s a crosstown rivalry, that to me, are always going to bring some people out, and it’s exciting for the kids to have bragging rights in town for whoever wins the game. It should be good. It’s also a home game for us, the home opener. So we’ll be excited, they’ll be excited and it should be a very good game.”