The Indian River High School football team knows that they could have managed a few upsets, despite starting the season going up against three larger schools with three larger teams.
But after falling to Maryland 3A Linganore in their opener, giving up a 14-0 lead to top-ranked Sussex Tech and most recently seeing turnovers cost them the game against top-ranked Cape Helopen in a 40-21 loss on Friday, Sept. 23, they also know that their season starts right now.
“We’re 0-0 right now in the South,” explained IR head coach Phil Townsend. “From here on out, though, we can’t afford a loss. The guys really have to understand that and stay focused at practice.”
“We knew those first three teams were going to be tough,” added senior running back George Martin. “I’m going to use this to push myself, and I hope that the rest of these guys do, too. Those losses — they’re going motivate us, rather than bringing us down.”
Martin and the rest of the seniors know that their ticket to the DIAA playoffs depends on their next six games, where they’ll face all six Henelopen South opponents and look to clinch the division title and an automatic bid — what would be the team’s first since 2013, when they started off 1-2 against non-division opponents and rallied back to go 5-1 in the South for their fourth straight crown.
Gearing up for Seaford this Friday to kick off that run, Townsend said that he was encouraged that his squad is headed into division play healthy, but that they’ve still got work to do in practice, in terms of staying focused and playing together as a team.
That was one of the factors in Friday’s loss to Cape as, despite the Indians jumping out to 8-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run from Martin — set up by senior running back Gerald Foreman taking the ball all the way down to the goal line — two turnovers returned for scores, seven penalties for 55 yards and an absence of “team tackling” contributed to the loss.
“If you take the two turnovers and the penalties out, we played a good game, in my opinion. We moved the ball offensively. We had a couple stops on defense, but we’re just not finishing tackles,” Townsend explained. “We’re not getting the whole team in on tackles. We’ve gotta go back to practice, back to tackling drills and back to what we do best.”
The Vikings struck back immediately after Martin’s score last Friday night, finding the end zone on a 25-yard run from junior fullback and 6-foot-3, 240-pound bruiser Kolbi Wright.
Then, with the Indians pinned back in their own territory, they’d take a 13-6 lead when Cape linebacker Zach Dale ran a blocked punt in for another score.
Junior defensive tackle Aarin Burton scooped up a fumble and returned it to the house midway through the second quarter, and Wright broke another 25-yard touchdown run just before halftime to give the Vikings a 27-8 lead headed into the break.
“They’re a big team. We knew that coming into the game. We were just hoping to be able to wear them down,” Townsend said of the game plan. “We did wear them down in the second half but, unfortunately, we shot ourselves in the foot in the first half. You can’t win ball games with turnovers. We’re trying to stress that to the guys.”
Martin would add his second touchdown of the game early in the third quarter, on another goal-line carry, and his third on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter, after a 55-yard interception return all the way down to the five by senior TE Gianni Gottschalk set up a score. But Cape touchdowns from junior running back Ben Ashby and senior running back Rasheed Woods kept the game out of reach, as the Indians fell to 0-3 on the season.
“They were big, but those big teams help use learn our strengths and weaknesses,” Martin said of Cape’s overall size, and in facing lineman such as Cape senior Robert Woods, weighing in at nearly 300 pounds.
“It’s a learning experience. We’re gonna learn how to play against these bigger teams, so if we do face a good-size line, we’re going to know how to play them. I’m glad we have that experience under our belt.”
IR freshman Jalen Snead started the game under center for the third straight game, tallying his first career completion to freshman running back Kevin Custis in the first quarter. He finished the day going 3-8, for 33 yards, finding Gottschalk on one of those passes for a 25-yard strike and first down. Junior QB Brandon Hoffman took over late in the first half, finishing the day 2-4, for 37 yards.
Senior linebacker Zion Howard lead the defense with 11 solo tackles and an assist on the day, and senior linebacker Joey Ciriello racked up seven tackles in his first game back from the IR. Senior safety Jared Arlett also racked up seven solo tackles in the game, for a personal season high.
Of the team’s five starting freshmen — including defensive end T.J. Moore, who tallied four tackles and recovered a fumble against Cape — Martin and the senior leaders are hoping that the underclassmen also realize the weight of the stretch of schedule lying ahead, especially considering that most of those freshmen are coming off an 8-0 season as eighth-graders at Selbyville Middle School.
“A lot of these guys aren’t used to losing, so when they get punched in the mouth a little bit, they’re not sure how to respond,” he said. “We have to make sure we keep our heads up and set a good example for the younger guys.
“If anything, from these first three weeks, we learned how to bounce back. It’s happened two weeks in a row already. We lost a game, and we still came out ready to work hard. I think every practice has been better than the week before.”
Heading into their upcoming road matchup against Seaford on Friday, Sept. 30, Townsend was equally encouraged by the mindset of his squad.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “We have no one hurt, and we’re headed into the South healthy. We’ve just got to go one game at a time.”