By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
After a grueling first day of practice Monday afternoon in oppressive heat and humidity, St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes
head football coach Bernard Joseph gathered his players at midfield and explained some of the challenges ahead.
The Saints saw 16 seniors on the squad graduate after last season, and have limited numbers compared to some of the other teams they will come up against, including within the Interstate Athletic Conference. Joseph said he expects to add a few more so there are 40 players to choose from in total for the varsity and junior varsity teams, but a large number of his charges will play on both sides of the ball.
Joseph had one reaction to the adversity the team is likely to face, and their expected underdog status.
“So what?” he asked them at midfield.
That meeting came at the end of an intense session in temperatures that soared above 100 degrees on the turf of Moss Field and under a strong sun. Some players began to drop to the turf 20 minutes into a circuit of cardio drills, but were roared on by Joseph and his assistants and encouraged to dig deep as the afternoon wore on.
“We’re one of the smaller teams in our conference, so it’s important that we’re one of the best-conditioned teams, and they don’t use that as an excuse not to perform,” Joseph said. “We want to simulate that as much as we can in practice.”
The players may have been dripping sweat and gasping for air, but saw the experience as a positive one for their conditioning, and also to bring them closer as a team.
“It’s a little hard, but football is not an easy sport,” said senior offensive tackle and defensive end Ryan Thaxton. “Like Coach said [to us], if it was easy, everybody would do it. We’ve got a lot of guys out here that want to work hard, that’s what we need. So it’s not that hard, with our brothers and teammates pushing us through it.”
“It’s definitely not easy,” said senior quarterback and safety Darnell Clement. “Coach always preaches that there’s only 1 percent of people that can do stuff like this in the heat and things of that nature. We’re that 1 percent, so we look at ourselves as special because it’s not that easy.”
Joseph said that idea of pushing through adversity goes beyond the football field for his players, who he hopes to shape into men that do just the same in their everyday lives after high school.
“It’s a life lesson for them,” he said. “If they can push themselves through this, then when they go into the workforce they’ll push themselves. When they become a good husband, they’ll push themselves. When they become a good Dad, they’ll push themselves. To me, this is the training ground for life for them, and that’s the way we approach.”
The equation is complicated somewhat by the loss of 16 seniors to graduation from last year’s team, which went 5-5 overall, including a 2-2 record in IAC play. Despite that, Joseph said he is confident those players that have come through can assume their roles.
“When you lose that many seniors, you lose a lot of leadership,” he said. “One of the things that we have to do every year is we have to regenerate leaders, we have to turn guys into leaders. What you hope that happens is the group before them will teach the younger guys how to be leaders.”
The efforts to inspire a new generation of leaders began that same day, when Darius Manora came to speak about leadership and the skills he has learned. Manora graduated from SSSAS in 2013 and is now a captain of the Yale football team, for whom he is a linebacker. The players on the current Saints roster noted the willingness of the underclassmen to step up already this year.
“This year, we’ve got a lot of young guys, but they want to work and that’s all that matters,” Thaxton said. “They want to put in the effort and we’ll get better as a team and progress.”
On the field, Joseph said he expects a strong running game in addition to the threat of Clement at quarterback, who has shown in the past he is capable of running the triple option offense. That system puts more onus on the quarterback and gives them the opportunity to run out of the pocket as well as pass or hand the ball off, and while Joseph said such schemes may be more limited this year, the team can make an impact.
“It’s going to take practices like today, it’s going to take every kid on our team understanding his role and giving 100 percent 100 percent of the time,” he said. “If we can get that, we have a chance. I think we have enough in certain positions to be competitive, we just have to get them to work hard all the time.”