Return to Glory: Wall Football Builds Itself Back Into a Contender
WALL - It's one of those cliches that get trotted out by every football team in the preseason: We've been working really hard in the weight room.
Then the games start and that clearly isn't the case for a lot of teams. However, for a Wall squad that has become one of the stories of the Shore Conference in the first two weeks, it's not just lip service when the Crimson Knights say they put in the work during the offseason.
Following a 41-6 wipeout of Central (2-1) on their home field Friday night, a team that had a combined seven wins in the last two seasons is off to a 2-0 start and has outscored its first two opponents 76-20.
It would be easy to say that the presence of 18 seniors is the obvious factor in their improvement, but that group has yet to experience a winning season so it's not like they could just show up a year older and be much improved. They still had to dedicate themselves during the offseason to get better.
"In the weight room we have all the numbers for the squat and bench and deadlift, and it hasn't been like that in years,'' senior wide receiver/defensive back R.J. Janeczek said. "Everyone was just putting in the work."
"They put in a lot of time with me in the weight room in the offseason, and whether they played basketball or baseball, they found a way to work on it and that's a tribute to them,'' head coach Dan Curcione said. "We kept talking about how we don't want to get pushed around any more."
The area where their commitment to the weight room is most evident is up front on both sides of the ball. An all-senior offensive line of Mike Andrejco, twins Darryl and Darryin Valme, Sean Ferguson and Ryan Venice has proven to be an imposing unit that has paved the way for senior Sean Larkin to be one of the Shore's most productive running backs in the early going.
"I think we're just a more physical team,'' Larkin said. "We're getting on blocks, and we can just push people around this year."
Larkin exploded for a career-high 181 yards and four touchdowns on 14 carries Friday night, one game after going over 100 yards and running for two scores in an eye-opening win over preseason Top 10 team Ocean to start the season.
Not only is Wall's running game getting into the end zone frequently, it also has allowed the Crimson Knights to dominate time of possession. When they faced one of the Shore Conference's best quarterbacks, Pittsburgh-bound Ocean senior Kenny Pickett, they were able to keep him off the field for long stretches by grinding the Spartans with the run game.
Wall has also shown that it can throw it over teams' heads if they load up the box to stop Larkin. Junior quarterback Eddie Scott was thrown into the fire as a sophomore last year when quarterback Matt Cluley, whom a new offense coordinated by Chip LaBarca Jr. had been designed around, went down with an injury in a season-opening loss to Red Bank.
"It helped me a tremendous amount,'' Scott said about last season. "I got a weight off my shoulders. This year it just really allowed me to have a clear mind and come in as a leader."
Scott has returned bigger, stronger and more experienced. Plus he has one of the top wideouts in the Shore in Janeczek as a primary target. The two connected for a 45-yard bomb for a touchdown on Friday night.
"I feel like last year we got ourselves in situations where we were more run-heavy or pass-heavy, and this year we're able to do either at any point in the game,'' Scott said.
The Crimson Knights also have a speedy perimeter threat in junior Chevesse Covin, a versatile talent who ripped off a 43-yard touchdown run on Friday night and also is a weapon in the passing game. It all adds up to the most talented and balanced offense Wall has had since its last winning season in 2011, which was the final year under Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Famer Chris Barnes.
"I feel like we have all the parts,'' Larkin said. "We have the line, we have the outside threats, we have receivers, we have the passing, the running. I just think we have it all."
Many of those same linemen paving the way on offense also have been a crucial part of a defense that has controlled opposing running games thus far. Add a group of linebackers led by senior Kyle Dallicardillo, and you have a group built to withstand the rigors of the Shore's most ruthless division, the rugged Class B North, which features some prolific offenses.
The Crimson Knights stifled Ocean's running attack in a 35-14 win in the season opener, rendering them one-dimensional around Pickett. On Friday night, they held one of the Shore's top running backs, Central senior Mike Bickford, to 43 yards on 15 carries.
The secondary is also a veteran group led by Janeczek, who had an interception in the win over Central, and senior Shane Richey, who had a clutch interception near the goal line in the win over Ocean.
Another factor in Wall's resurgence has been an improved mindset. After losses in two straight season openers, the Crimson Knights looked shaky in trailing 14-7 at the half to Ocean last week before dominating the second half. The experience gained by this senior group, many of whom saw extensive time as sophomores, is now translating into the calm under pressure in the second halves of games that creates wins.
"Within we all knew we were going to play our best and we knew we were going to win, but it really made a statement and showed everybody outside that we're coming this year,'' Janeczek said about the win over Ocean.
A program that was once a fixture in the Top 10 and a perennial title contender has gotten its swagger back behind a senior class that was predicted to do big things since they were sophomores.
"We discussed it in the offseason that let's cut ties with these losing seasons and start something new here,'' Scott said.
Now comes the hard part - dealing with being the hunted. The Crimson Knights have announced their arrival, and it's up to them to prove they have staying power well into November. No one will be taking them lightly in a cutthroat division where every week is a challenge.
"I think we have to keep our poise, and we can't take anyone lightly,'' Larkin said. "In Shore football, no one is easy to beat."
"That competition is the best part,'' Janeczek said. "We want to get it back to where it's a winning program and you're not coming into seasons and everyone is overlooking you."