Ben Anderson was heartbroken when Vineland High School parted ways with football coach Josh Hedgeman.
Anderson was a freshman when Hedgeman was hired, and the message his former coach delivered was a gospel the running back thought would carry him throughout his scholastic career.
“He told us that we were going to be his (first) senior class and we were going to go all the way with him,” Anderson recalled.
When VHS decided not to bring Hedgeman back after three years and a 10-20 record, Anderson had mixed emotions.
On one hand, he said he felt let down by Hedgeman, who was unsuccessful in turning the floundering program around.
On the other, Anderson wondered if there was more he and his teammates could’ve done to keep Hedgeman at the helm.
Then Dan Russo was hired, and Anderson’s spirits were lifted.
“When I first met him, he shook my hand and he said he’s going to change this program around,” Anderson recalled. “I had a good feeling about him. I knew he was serious about his work, so I was riding all the way with him.”
A positive first impression goes a long way toward players believing in a new coach, because it’s not easy discarding years of teaching from a previous instructor.
“That was definitely the hardest part,” said St. Augustine senior receiver Austin Francisco, who’s in Year 2 of the Mark Reardon era after spending his first two seasons being coached by Dennis Scuderi Sr. “Throwing everything you had learned previously under coach Scuderi out the window and learning everything else under a new coach and readjusting to that (wasn’t easy).”
But once Francisco started talking and practicing with Reardon, he saw his new coach’s intensity and passion, and any worries he had went away.
Reardon rewarded his players’ faith by directing them to an 8-2 record and a Cape-Atlantic League National Conference championship in Year 1 of his tenure.
Now the Hermits are all in with Reardon, who said the summer participation rose from 45 kids to 70 in just one season.
“Regardless of what the perception was of me or our staff, unless you have success, it means very little,” Reardon said. “So from my perspective, the kids have to see what you’re doing work. If they don’t see what you’re doing work, they won’t buy into it, and they’re not dumb. They get it. If they see themselves playing well, if they see the fact they’ve invested in this thing and they’re in the weight room and they’re stronger and they’re faster, they’ll keep coming back, and to me that’s the most important dynamic of our relationship.”
That’s a big reason Delsea continues to sport a strong team year after year. Sal Marchese is in his 21st season leading the Crusaders, and players in the high school and midget programs can look at that success and feel confident they’re being taught properly.
“It makes you want to listen to (the coaches) because you know (Marchese) knows what he’s talking about,” said senior defensive tackle Gary Smith, who began playing in the Delsea system in eighth grade. “You know what he’s saying is important, it’s right. That’s the way you do it. He’s been doing this for so long he knows what he’s talking about.”
Vineland doesn’t have that cache built up yet, but Russo is trying. He said both Vineland midget programs are running the Fighting Clan playbook, which will make transitioning easier in the future.
However, the current players are learning on the fly, which can be tricky.
“It’s hard adjusting to it, but as time goes on it gets better,” Vineland captain Jamil Demby said.
But Russo had the kids believing in themselves early on thanks to his positive attitude and upbeat nature, instilling confidence in a program that hasn’t had much in recent years.
“I can tell you every player on that team believes in coach Russo,” said senior Chris Atoki, who’s played for three different coaches in three years.
And when players believe in that message, their results can benefit.
Anderson, in particular, has seen a dramatic improvement under Russo.
Anderson had a modicum of success running the ball last season, finishing with 76 yards on 11 carries. This year, Russo had Anderson change how he hit the hole. Hedgeman wanted Anderson to be patient while Russo wanted him to attack.
Attacking has worked for Anderson, who’s rushed for 267 yards and two touchdowns on just 28 carries so far in 2013.
“I believe in him a lot more because the results I’m seeing in myself is a lot better and that’s what he taught me,” Anderson said.
Ultimately, that’s Russo’s goal — progress.
“You have to believe not only in yourself, but you have to believe in your coaches, in the program, in the team,” Russo said. “You have to be a team player. There’s no individuals out here. You have to do what’s best for the team and if we’re all on the same page, then we’re going to have a lot of success, which I intend to have.”