The Sussex County Punishers — formerly known as the Warhawks — had their first practice of 2006 on Nov. 2, officially marking the start of 2006-07 Diamond Football League semi-pro football season.
The Warhawks made the DFL playoffs three times after Tina Dennis took over the team as owner seven years ago and were one game away from the league championship game in 2001. But the team has since been mired in mediocrity.
Last season, the Warhawks (3-5) lost three games by only 13 points and missed the playoffs for the third straight year.
Two games were lost on questionable calls by the officiating crews and the third because the Warhawks missed three field goals inside their opponents’ red zone. And that three game swing swung them right out of the playoff last season.
The general consensus among the Warhawks players and ownership was that it was time for a change.
“Everyone felt as if there was a black cloud hanging over the Warhawks. But now we have new uniforms and a new attitude,” Punisher’s offensive coordinator Butch Yocum said. “Tina wanted to change the name when she acquired the team, but it was easier to keep the jerseys that we had. But she wants to win more than anybody.”
So, following the Warhawks’ loss to the Talbot County Warriors in the regular-season finale, Dennis allowed her players to pick a new team name and colors, in the hopes of generating some excitement coming into the next season. And, sure enough, her decision seems to be yielding dividends.
The Punishers dropped the old jersey color of burgundy and silver for a fresh green-and-yellow ensemble. And, in addition, they have seen an infusion of talent — particularly former collegiate talent.
In addition to acquiring a pair of DFL all-star offensive linemen from the recently liquidated Kent County Fire, the Punishers have added a DFL veteran and former collegiate kicker in George Meier; Stephen Decatur and recent Salisbury University Seagull 395-pound behemoth offensive lineman Jurod Sample; former Hampton quarterback Kurt Purnell; and two-year University of Richmond defensive back starter C.J. Clement to compete for playing time.
Already in the Punishers’ first practice, Yocum noticed a difference in his offensive line’s playability and a new intensity between the white lines.
“Our offensive line is coming together so much quicker this season, because I only have to tell them something one time,” Yocum said. “You tell them once and they have it down pat, and that’s what you want.”
“In years past, we’ve been a team consisting of mostly construction workers, but now we have legitimate college players on our team. They know what a combination block is because they’ve played along the offensive line all their lives. And that’s going to be important for us, so we can get the second level blocked.”
Yocum noted that the precision on offense was matched with so much intensity from the defense that their first practice had to be called off because the hitting became too violent — especially for only practicing in shoulder pads and helmets.
“The intensity level was so outrageous [Thursday night] that we had to call practice,” Yocum explained. “They were hitting harder than I’ve ever seen them, and we didn’t even have pants pads in.”
In years past, the Warhawks could hardly hold a practice because of in adequate attendance in practice.
“Usually, we’d have maybe 15 or 20 guys show up at practice. But this year we had 30 come on the first night,” Yocum said.
Yocum noted that, throughout the off-season, he’s received word from upwards of 70 potential players about playing for the Punishers this season. But only the most serious and competitive players would be taken.
He and Dennis know and understand that these men have jobs and that that will always come first. But they expect their players to keep in touch and give 110 percent when they’re out on the field.
“I’ve really been encouraged by everything,” Dennis said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm. Everyone’s ready to go, ready to play, and they’re hungry. And it’s not just a few of the players — everyone is.”
“The way we see it, the more the merrier — but most of these players will end up cutting themselves,” Yocum noted. “We expect our players to come to practice and give 110 percent. And if they can’t make it, then we expect a call. We also are looking for playability. I don’t care if you run a 4.0 flat; if you can’t play football, then you won’t play for us because it won’t do anything for you.”
The Punishers will set their initial roster following their first scrimmage in Virginia Beach on Nov. 18, in preparation for the DFL’s Jan. 20 Jamboree, in which teams from all over the East Coast come together for a day of scrimmages prior to the Feb. 17 regular-season start.
Interested players can contact Butch Yocum at (302) 222-8379 or Tina Dennis at (302) 337 9713.
The Punishers practice at the Bridgeville softball field.