Military clichés are fairly common in athletics — especially football. Naturally, battle is linked to football because it’s violent and victory is achieved by brute force. But it’s the essence of teamwork that strikes at the root of its common bond. Without teamwork, victory isn’t possible in either arena.
The Sussex County Warhawks learned that lesson last year and have their 3-5 record to prove it. Only one-third of their players even bothered to show up for the team’s final game against the hapless Talbot County Warriors (1-7).
Tired of the headaches, head coach and player Butch Yocum decided to resign, based on the notion that the players weren’t putting in the time necessary. They weren’t meeting him in the middle. His sister and team owner, Tina Dennis, teetered on the decision of whether or not she would field a team in the upcoming season but withdrew her resignation upon filling the head-coaching vacancy with a veteran military man.
Sgt. John Boyer served the United States Army for 15 years, so he has plenty of applicable experience in rousing and shaping grown men. His objective: Eliminate the non-hackers and field a functioning team to be ready for battle against the defending champion New Castle Saints on Feb. 4.
Last season, the Warhawks were labeled a “first-half team” and let leads evaporate, so Boyer decided to fix the problem. Conditioning became mandatory and the players embraced it.
“The guys were out there throwing up but they were back the next day,” said Dennis.
“There were some moans and groans but they did it,” added Boyer.
Boyer’s conditioning program weeded out the pretenders and has hardened the team as they get ready to kick off the 2006 winter season.
Boyer’s success with the team thus far convinced Yocum to return, but not to play. No, those days are over — but he’ll run the offense.
“Playing and coaching was the hardest thing, because when the offense is on the sidelines I was playing, and it was tough to work together. There are things you can see on the field, but it’s not like being on the sidelines,” said Yocum. “Plus, I like to get suggestions from the players. I like to get their perspective — they know what’s working out there”
Yocum has a full box of tools to work with, despite losing his starting quarterback and biggest wide-receiver threat in the off-season.
Tony Eskridge replaces Jason Rust at quarterback and a returning offensive line should facilitate a smooth transition.
“That’s the game,” said Yocum. “The game is won between the line of scrimmage and we’re opening up whole as big as cars in our scrimmage.”
Yocum noted that the protection provided by his line in their scrimmage allowed Eskridge an opportunity to check his first, second and third reads before checking back down to the first receiver.
Yocum plans to control the clock by running the ball behind old warhorses, and the Warhawks will definitely benefit from pro-prospect Greg LaFreniere at running back. LaFreniere attended the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins training camps before settling in the Seaford area. Having professional pedigree on the team will definitely wear on opposing teams.
“He’s a hoss,” said Boyer.
Wherever there is thunder, lightning is sure to follow, and the Warhawks have plenty of speed to counter LaFreniere’s power. Former Indian River player Josh Long will see time at running back and at free safety, and Martin Frantois adds his “sweet and smooth “style to the mix.
Playmaker Andre Matthews couldn’t play this season, but teams should be warned: stack the box and get burned, because Yocum will have a quite a few players at his disposal to help fill the void.
Two-time all-state player (Maryland and Delaware) Torrez Spence isn’t as tall as Matthews (only 6’2”, to Matthews’ 6’5”) but he compensates with speed and precise route-running. Former Delaware State basketball player Josh Ward adds his tremendous leaping ability to the fray and will no-doubt serve create mismatches in the red zone.
Defensively, the unit stayed intact, with linebacker Tremond Conway leading the way. Conway is by far their best player, and a formidable defensive line will shield him from the attention he received last year from opposing teams.
Highly recruited defensive lineman Billy Jackson, out of Sussex Tech, will solidify a defensive front that also returns brothers Albert and Troy Haynes.
Defensive end Albert Haynes’ ability to play in space creates the flexibility to run a diverse defensive scheme.
Linebacker Jonathan Meiklejohn returns as the prodigal son from a frustrating season to help spearhead the Warhawks’ defense.
“Meiklejohn has really shown me a lot from last year,” said Boyer. “He was an All-State player and an excellent linebacker, but he’s really shown me something from last year”
Boyer has noticed an all-around change in the teams’ attitude, too — one that he thinks can be the difference in the upcoming season.
“We have a different cast of players and a different attitude. Guys are willing to play hard and I have gotten a lot respect from the players,” said Boyer. “This game against the Saints is a determining game for us, and I want to win.”
The Warhawks will mix blades with the Saints at the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend (MOT) Football Complex in Middletown on Feb. 4 at 12 p.m. The Warhawks’ home games will be played at the Sussex County Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Seaford.