Football: Pinelands Trio Looks to Make Their Mark in U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic
JACKSON - For much of their careers at Pinelands, linemen Joe Puggi and Dave DeFeo and running back Jaylin Roman had to look up at the scoreboard and see their team on the wrong end of a lop-sided game.
However, the fact that all three were selected to play for the Ocean County squad in Thursday's U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic at Long Branch High School shows the respect the Wildcats earned this season despite a 2-8 record. Although one of their wins was a forfeit that reversed a loss on the field to Donovan Catholic, four of their losses were by eight points or less, and two others were by 14 points or less. That was a notable improvement from 2013, when they finished 1-9 with all the losses by 20 or more points.
"I hated losing, and you also start to hate practice,'' Puggi said before Ocean County's practice at Jackson Memorial High School. "It's a better feeling that even though you lose, you're not the laughingstock of the school any more because you're right in games. You saw teams struggling to beat us, and yeah even though they won, they got that thought in their head that we're not that easy win any more."
When the trio were freshmen and sophomores, Pinelands was a combined 0-19, so they endured plenty of adversity over the years, but stuck with it. They hope their return to competitiveness in the second year under head coach Brian Wilkinson is a signal that things are changing at a program that has one state playoff victory in its history.
"I think we turned the program around this season,'' Roman said. "We had a lot of success running the ball, and we were in just about every single game. I think we changed the mindset about football in our school. More people came out to play, and more people were dedicated to going to the weight room."
"We like to joke around that we were the best two-win team in the Shore because almost all of our games came down to the fourth quarter,'' said DeFeo, who also was a baseball standout. "I think we gained some respect around the Shore and the school because were competitive."
Many years in the Gridiron Classic, Pinelands has had maybe one representative on the Ocean County squad after another tough season, but this year there were initially four before lineman Dave Staton dropped out. Puggi, Roman and DeFeo were all Class B South All-Division selections by the coaches, another sign of the respect for the Wildcats' talent.
"We might not be winning all these games, but we're making a change in the look of Pinelands and showing the underclassmen that they need to keep working,'' Puggi said. "We have a lot of underclassmen who are excited about playing football, and we haven't had that in a while at Pinelands. This year changed a lot of things, and there's been a lot of support from the school."
Roman will be part of the Ocean County backfield along with Toms River South's Khaleel Greene, Jackson Liberty's Dom Regina, and Brick Memorial's Connor Owen. In his first year as the starter in Pinelands' old-school double-wing offense, Roman ran for 756 yards and 7 touchdowns for a team that had 733 yards rushing as a team in 2013. DeFeo, Puggi and Dave Staton helped pave the way up front.
"Jaylin wasn't a starter coming into the season, and he came in and had a successful year,'' Puggi said.
"People knew when they played Pinelands, it would be a tough game,'' Roman said.
DeFeo was also a standout on defense with nine sacks on a unit that dramatically improved, allowing 17.9 points per game one year after surrendering 36.9 per game.
In 2013, Wilkinson, a former head coach at Toms River South, inherited a team that had not won a game since going 5-5 in 2010 behind record-setting running back Matt McLain.
"He brought a new mentality to the team,'' said DeFeo, who will continue his career at Salisbury University. "He believed in us when we didn't believe in ourselves, and it really gave us a boost."
After going through some tough times together, there also is a strong bond among the recently graduated seniors, who will get one last chance to represent the Wildcats on Thursday.
"It was four hard years, so it's good to get to play in a game like this with all these great players,'' DeFeo said. "There were tough times, but we just stuck together. This is our time to shine for little old Pinelands."