Leo Hamlett knows a thing or two about winning football. He was a star at Holy Spirit High School and the University of Delaware in the 1990s, and for years was an assistant coach with the Ocean City and Holy Spirit programs. He took over the job as head coach of Atlantic City prior to the 2018 season, and he knows the challenge that lies ahead in rebuilding the Vikings, but he’s ready for it, and laying the foundation one brick at a time.

“When you go 0-10, of course you’re going to be excited to get off the snide, but we have to build something here. You have those instances where you can come in, sell your soul to the devil and maybe go .500, and I think with the type of athletes we have we could probably do that. But as much as I want to do that — especially for the seniors — I want to build the program so that the program can last. We have to invest in the young kids, so we’ll be young again this year,” said Hamlett, who will be in search of his first win on Sept. 6 when Atlantic City hosts Egg Harbor Township (the Vikings went 0-10 in Hamlett’s first season). “We have to invest in the weight room and we know that takes more than one year for us to get stronger, and we have to invest in an ability to have some versatility. If we don’t develop our guys — we have upperclassmen who could probably play multiple positions on both sides of the ball, but if I don’t put young guys out there they will never develop and never be ready when their time comes.”

It’s not easy to get young football players committed to offseason conditioning and weight programs after a winless season, but Hamlett said he likes the effort he’s been seeing throughout the offseason and in preseason training camp. And this year’s Vikings squad will have some weapons and speed. Senior Chris Culmone returns and is in a quarterback competition with junior Corey Yeoman, but whoever gets the starting nod the other will certainly be in the starting lineup as either a wide receiver or H-back. And A.C. has a potential standout running back in junior Shawn McGraw, who showed flashes of his potential a year ago.

“We’re trying to come together as a team, as a brotherhood, play together and teach each other — never bring each other down, bring each other up every time and go out there and fight for four quarters, never give up and play to the end,” said Dewayne Johnson, a senior and one of the leaders on the offensive line. “We have a smaller line, but I’m going to make sure my line fights to the end and make sure we get that push whenever we can, and just do what we have to do. I like that this line comes every day to get better. They come and do what they have to do so we can get better as a team. We’re all pushing each other to do what we have to do to help this offense.”

Atlantic City is in the West Jersey Football League’s Continental Division and has one of the toughest schedules in South Jersey, so the Vikings will have to be prepared to take some bumps and bruises, and with less than 40 players on the roster they have to stay away from injuries if possible. The Vikings take on the likes of St. Joseph, St. Augustine Prep, Vineland, Millville, Williamstown, Eastern, Timber Creek and Holy Spirit — a tough task for a rebuilding team, but the schedule should be more favorable next year when the WJFL realigns again (the league realigns every two years to promote competitive balance).

“It’s going to be a rebuilding process. If you look at our schedule, St. Joe is tough, Eastern and Millville are tough, Vineland’s a juggernaut, and the other teams are much bigger and deeper than us, but we’re thinking we’ll be able to give them a run for their money. The key thing for our older guys who are playmakers is to keep developing. Obviously, everyone wants a winner, but if you’re doing the right things in the classroom, in the weight room and on the field, you can still be a good college player. So we’re hoping to develop those skill players to be versatile on both sides of the ball so they can be ready to go to that next level if they get a shot,” Hamlett said. “The biggest thing for me is to get a routine. It’s easy to focus on one thing, but we’re talking about a routine of study hall, lifting in the offseason, going to camps and clinics. Being able to get organized and get everybody on the same page is the biggest thing for us. Until we get that done, we won’t be able to have the program running like we want it to. Right now, we’re chasing, trying to get enough guys to just get a JV team together, but we’re hoping to get all that done in the next couple of years.”

Hamlett said he also understands that high school players are different than when he played back in the 1990s. The days of running the fullback dive 50 times in a row in practice are over, and he and his staff have to keep finding ways to keep players engaged on the practice field. But he has a solid staff, with some interesting newcomers. Former Mainland and William Patterson player Cole Raring is on board to help out with the offensive line, and coordinating the defense is former Holy Spirit, USC and NFL player Anthony Sarao, who also is the older brother of Yeoman — who transferred in from St. Augustine Prep and will play a huge role on defense as the Vikings’ middle linebacker.

“It’s definitely different than when I played. For a couple of years, all I did was hold a bag and watch and listen, I had to wait my turn. Nowadays, kids come out and they need to be engaged and involved right away,” Hamlett said. “It’s tough to get everybody involved and have the kids understand that sometimes you might catch five passes, sometimes you might not get any catches. Sometimes you might carry the ball 10 or 20 times, sometimes you might not carry the ball. We’re working on that team mentality. In the offense we run, it takes repetition, timing and feel. I’m hoping this year we’ll have a JV so we can develop those kids and have a foundation for what we want to do, both on offense and defense, and hopefully that foundation will begin to roll and we’ll keep getting better as the years go on.”

For now, the focus is simply on getting better every day and sticking together as a team.

“We’re staying together, make sure the guys are staying out of trouble, getting their grades right. We can’t worry about the outside stuff because we know everybody is doubting us right now. We changed out offense up a lot, and we have some boys out here (who can play),” Yeoman said. “We don’t have to worry about anything except keeping our heads straight and staying on the right path.”

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


(all games at 6pm unless otherwise noted)

Sept. 6 vs. EHT

Sept. 13 at Vineland (time TBA)

Sept. 20 vs. Washington Township

Sept. 28 at St. Joseph (noon)

Oct. 4 at Williamstown (7pm)

Oct. 11 at Eastern (7pm)

Oct. 18 at Deptford (7pm)

Oct. 25 vs. Millville

No. 1 vs. Timber Creek

Nov. 28 vs. Holy Spirit (10am)

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