When Kevin Smith took over the Ocean City football program a decade ago, he had a plan. He wanted to build the Red Raiders into a perennial playoff contender, and a team that could legitimately talk about winning sectional championships. It’s easy to say, ‘yup, that’s our plan.’ It’s a whole different thing to be willing to do all the little things it takes to build that kind of program, and to suffer through some losing seasons before the foundation of what you’re trying to build gets set.

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In Smith’s first season, the Red Raiders went 2-8. A year later, in 2012, they were a game better, posting a 3-7 mark. The team traded off 4-6 and 3-7 years until 2016, when Ocean City posted the first winning season under Smith at 6-4. Still, that wasn’t enough to get into the postseason, and the Raiders’ were still in search of their first playoff appearance under Smith.

Things began to change, however, in that 2016 season, as the Red Raiders began to turn a corner and become more of a program than just a team full of guys who liked to play football. With each passing year the offseason workouts got a little bit tougher, the coaching staff felt it could challenge the players just a little bit more, and that brick-laying philosophy has begun to pay off in a big way. Ocean City has made it to the postseason in each of the last four years, and in 2019 the Red Raiders beat rival Mainland Regional in the opening round of states, then topped Long Branch to reach the South Jersey Group 4 championship game, where they fell to a very strong Shawnee squad.

This past season was a little unorthodox with the coronavirus pandemic playing havoc on South Jersey football schedules, but still Ocean City was able to take another step forward, as it found itself in several top rankings among South Jersey schools — and stayed there throughout a season that saw the Raiders go 6-2 and record some signature wins, including beating St. Joseph for the first time in nearly two decades. Ocean City also beat Millville and scored the most lopsided win over rival Mainland in the series’ history, routing the Mustangs 63-0 on Nov. 6.

Smith said he credits this year’s senior class with showing the ability to build on the foundation that was laid for them by previous classes, and raising the expectation level for the program as a whole.

“We’re losing a helluva senior class. We knew those guys were going to be good when they were freshmen but they’ve exceeded our expectations. One thing they are leaving behind, other than a lot of wins, is a sense of how to do things,” Smith said. “I think they’ve done a great job with how to train the younger kids in terms of practice habits and how to conduct themselves in the weight room and off the field. Now the challenge is to keep that moving forward. We’re only bringing back four starters on both sides of the ball, so there will be some challenges in terms of replacing the talent, but I really do think that with the numbers we have — we’re near 100 kids — and with the practice habits and being able to conduct themselves the right way, I think we’re going to stay competitive.”

One of the biggest keys to Ocean City’s success has been consistency, and that starts with a coaching staff that has remained largely intact for about seven years now.

“If I had to pinpoint one thing it would go back to when we built our weight room. The first four years I was the head coach we didn’t really have a lifting facility here at the school and we had the kids spread out all over and doing stuff on their own. Not only were they not training properly, but we weren’t building any sense of team unity. Then we built the weight room and started training hard together, and they got used to doing hard things together during the offseason, and I think that really carried over,” Smith said. “Also, we were fortunate enough to bring aboard some really good coaches. I think we have one of the more consistent coaching staffs in the area with guys like Sean Matthews, Paul Callahan, Frank LaSasso, Mike Eisenstein — there’s a ton of football experience that those guys bring to the table. And we’ve been stable. We’ve had the same staff together for seven years, and that helps.”

“The coaching staff was phenomenal my four years,” said Jake Inserra, a senior linebacker and running back this year. “They really installed the idea of family, which is what I love, and that has helped propel this team forward. They care about academics and they care about what we’re doing, not just as football players. They made sure every kid was doing his part for the team, and their football IQ is really high. They put our team in great positions to excel.”

It’s not easy for a public school to build up a dynasty in South Jersey football with so many good parochial schools, such as Holy Spirit, St. Joseph, St. Augustine Prep and others, showing the ability to lure top players; and Ocean City has the added distraction of being, well, Ocean City. It’s not easy for coaches to convince teenage boys to give up time in the spring and summer at a shore resort to go work out for the football season.

“This is a public school, so you get what you get, you can’t go out and pick-and-choose, so we have to keep building the enthusiasm and the feeder programs. One thing I really love at our games — and we weren’t able to see it this year because of COVID — but seeing a ton of young kids at our games, kids from Upper Township and Ocean City. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for our program now,” Smith said. “When I first got the job, the best kids every year from Ocean City or Upper were going to St. Joe or St. Augustine Prep, but we’ve been able to keep kids at home. You still lose them every now and then, you get a kid like Chandler Bird who is at BYU now and who went to Prep. He’s an Upper kid and we would have loved to have kept him, but for the most part we’re keeping kids home and they are excited to come play here.”

Another challenge in 2020 was dealing with COVID-19. The Ocean City coaching staff asked its players not to socialize with their friends, to not go to parties or gather in large groups. And the team responded. The program was one of the few in South Jersey that didn’t have to shut down during the season because of positive COVID tests.

“That was a huge lesson for us in terms of appreciating the moment, having a goal and making the real sacrifices,” Smith said. “It’s one thing to say we want to be a successful program so you guys are going to have to make the sacrifice to go lift and do those types of things. Those are things kids want to do. It’s a whole other thing to say, ‘hey, you know that party where that girl you’ve been chasing around for awhile is going to be there? You really need to think about if you should go there and be in that environment.’ I know our guys gave up a lot of that stuff. We live in Ocean City where there are a lot of people and a lot of social life, so that was hard. If I’m honest with myself I think, would I have done that when I was 17 years old? But these guys were invested and that made a huge difference.”

And that shows just how far this program has come. Now, football is more important than the beach, or surfing, or parties, or whatever other distractions young men might face. The players understand that if they want to be a state championship program someday, there are sacrifices that must be made.

“The goal is still to win the South Jersey Group 4 championship. We were in the finals in 2019 and this past year we got to the pod championship after we beat St. Joe, then that whole fiasco with Camden happened and that was frustrating. I feel like we are right there, we just haven’t achieved the ultimate goal yet,” Smith said.

“We’re breaking in a new quarterback next year, Riley Gunnels, who is a big kid.

We threw him in there against DePaul when (Joe) Repetti got banged up a little, and his first drive he looked like a deer in the headlights, but he went out there the next drive against their first-team defense and took us on a 70-yard drive that ended with a touchdown, so that was great experience for him. We’ll have to tailor the offense to his strengths. He’s a very different quarterback than Repetti so that will require some adjustment on our part. On the defensive side of the ball we have to replace our two inside linebackers, Inserra and Brad Jamison, who is going to Bucknell. From a scheme perspective we’re going to look a little different personnel-wise so we have to figure out the right schemes that work.”

Inserra may be on the way out the door this spring on his way to the University of Pennsylvania, but he’s confident the players left behind will be able to carry on this new winning tradition Ocean City has built the past four years.

“I think this program is in great hands now. The soon-to-be senior class and this year’s sophomores, they are all hard workers and they are in great hands with these coaches. they’ve had some great role models to base their practices off of. I think big things are coming to Ocean City,” Inserra said. “You put in all that extra work in the offseason and in the summers, and to see everything come together and start being successful, it feels really great to see all that hard work coming together. The sky is the limit for this team in the future. The guys below this year’s seniors, they know how to work hard and they have a ton of talent. We have big hopes for Ocean City in the coming years.”

Smith typically isn’t a big rah-rah guy, and he said the team’s slogan for 2021 could very well be the same as it has been for years now.
“We’ve always been a ‘find-a-way’ team, that’s been our slogan, and I feel like that still applies,” he said. “We’re in these unique circumstances still. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to get our offseason training done. It’s going to be another year where you just have to figure out the best way to get things done.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

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