Tom O’Hare didn’t wait for the question to be asked.
“Bobby Henderson was not our tailback last year,” John Jay High School’s football coach said, even before pleasantries gave way to formal questions. “(Rob) Haughton was essentially our starting tailback most of the season. … He took predominantly most of the carries last year until the postseason when we started relying more heavily on Bobby.”
Henderson took that increased workload and bulldozed the Patriots all the way to their first Section 1 Class AA final in program history and an 8-2 record, before he graduated last June.
Perhaps, by the end of August, O’Hare had been asked about Henderson’s absence enough times, by everyone from his mailman to the guy at the drive-thru window, that he knew it was coming. More likely, he wanted to send a message:
The Patriots aren’t allowing themselves any excuses. Not because of talent lost to graduation, and not because of a schedule as difficult as any in Section 1.
John Jay is aiming high again.
“I think we can definitely achieve getting to the finals again,” senior linebacker Dale White said, “and I just expect to go further this year. I want to go further.”
Although he acknowledges graduating seniors like Henderson, quarterback Dan Bogucki, tight end Tom Hagan and others have left a sizable gap in leadership — not to mention the more tangible loss of strong two-way players and three offensive linemen — O’Hare is focusing on what he does have.
“Athleticism. We have a really athletic group of kids,” he said. “Our offensive line is good size. … They’re an athletic group of 220-, 230-pound kids who can move. Our defensive secondary is athletic and just very well put together.
“Athleticism-wise, I’d put them up there with any team I’ve seen come through. If we can come together and start to play as a team and put team goals above everything else, I think this team can achieve at a high level.”
In addition to Haughton, a quicker, more versatile runner than Henderson, senior Victor Terry is a Patriot who epitomizes the team’s athletic identity. More than simply Haughton’s backfield backup, Terry is a dynamic cornerback for a squad that made its mark a year ago with its defense.
“I feel like our defense is pretty much the whole entire game — defense and special teams,” Terry said. “And our defense is looking pretty good. Actually, we’re looking very good. We have to fix the little things, little tiny things, but that’s about it.”
The biggest change for the defense is at the linebacker position, having graduated players like Bogucki and Gino Ruotolo. Instead of two seniors at inside linebacker, O’Hare is starting two juniors.
“Jared Sanchez, who was up last year as a sophomore, has been doing a great job,” he said. “And Justin Richardson, who’s up, first-year varsity player, but just has a great nose for the football and just a lot of tools to work with.”
Just as important is Bogucki’s replacement on the other side of the football. After a tight three-way race for the position throughout camp, O’Hare named senior Kyle Contreras his starting quarterback last week.
“We said from the start, the guy who makes the least mistakes was going to be our guy,” O’Hare said. “His athleticism certainly is a key asset for Kyle. … Very athletic, very fast kid, very strong.”
While Contreras, who also starts at safety, has taken all the first-team reps for the last week, O’Hare stressed Joe Lasaponara and Mike Wakefield are also getting work in at the position.
“Right now, all three quarterbacks have done a great job of keeping us balanced,” O’Hare said. “We pride ourselves in our offense in being balanced. … No matter how good you are at one thing, teams will try to force you to do something else.”
Motivation has not been a problem throughout camp, especially given the way John Jay has to start a regular-season slate that features five 2011 playoff teams: Week 1 is a playoff rematch at Arlington, and Week 2 is a championship rematch vs. North Rockland, the only team to beat the Patriots last season, in Wiccopee.
“Ever since the winter we’ve been preparing for the first game we have back,” Haughton said. “It’s all very exciting. It’s all I can look forward to.”