South Jersey Sports Report: How Cedar Creek Built a Football Program from the Ground Up
Tim Watson’s first game coaching the brand new Cedar Creek High School Pirates in the Cape-Atlantic League came on Sept. 7, 2012, at iconic Carey Stadium nestled against the boardwalk in Ocean City. Cedar Creek was a fledgling program — and school, for that matter, with the paint barely dry a year after the Egg Harbor City campus opened.
Where did a team like this, not even two years into its existence, get the audacity to come out at Carey Stadium wearing all white uniforms with eye-popping neon green cleats? And not just a few star players — everybody on the team was sporting the florescent footwear. The Pirates came into the CAL with a flourish, and wanted to let everyone know, right from the jump, what they were all about. They were going to be flashy and fast, but also have the discipline to grind down an opponent throughout the span of four quarters.
At least, that’s what Watson and his staff were hoping for when they decided this would be a fun, fashion-forward football program that paired style with wins.
“In 2012 we wore the neon green cleats, and nobody was really doing that at the time. We went 4-5 the previous year as an independent schedule team. We go to Ocean City for our first CAL game, everybody is fired up — and that’s such an iconic place to play a game, with the Ferris wheel in the background. We were in all white with neon green cleats, and we ended up winning 47-0,” said Watson, who recently stepped down after leading Cedar Creek to 74 wins and two sectional championships in 10 seasons, including a JV schedule the first year the school was open. “That was our first CAL game and I think that made a statement about what type of program we were and what we aspired to be. It takes a lot to come out wearing those cleats, in just your second season of varsity football, but we backed it up. That’s a great visual memory that stands out in my mind.
“We took a gamble. Sometimes when you try to do things and have fun and have a little bit of swag, if you don’t win you almost look silly. We did the neon stuff and we ended up coming out on the right side of a lot of those games, so it worked out in our favor and created a little bit of an energy. That’s what we were going for, a loose program but a disciplined program. A fun program, but a tough and physical program. And hopefully a program that would have some playmakers on offense, sling the ball around, and fly to the ball on defense,” Watson added. “We’re really blessed, it has really worked out. There was a lot of synchronicity that made things click. It was an awesome 10-year run. I love looking back on some of the pieces that (Glory Days) wrote about some of the teams and kids. It’s been awesome.”
“We were talking recently — we still do ‘Pirate TV’ a few times a week for the kids and we did a special on coach Watson recently. He talked about the neon cleats and having that swagger, and hopefully backing it up, having the kids buy into it. I’ll never forget, we had a night game in Ocean City, I think it was our third year as a program, he’s looking at Oregon and getting those colors. All the kids run out under the glare of those lights at Ocean City in those neon green cleats. People were taken back. Could they back it up? He brought the swag, he really did, and got the kids to believe in it,” said Cedar Creek Athletic Director Mike McGhee. “I was brought up in a different time, but he (Watson) took them to the edge, and as long as they didn’t jump over that ledge or step over the boundary. With what we talked about early in the program, and when Cedar Creek opened if you applied within our district you got into the school. The first two years, anybody who applied got in just to fill the seats, and with that there were a lot of eyes looking at Cedar Creek High School. That first year we played all over the state. It was our third year when we finally got into the Cape-Atlantic League, and all eyes were on Tim and the program at that time and that’s when Tim started making a name for himself and when all that swag started to happen. It was good. The kids bought into it. He’s been able to do stuff with these kids, he’s a father figure to these kids and it was always more than the Xs and Os with these kids. It was about making sure they became good young men. You can act (with swagger) on the field, but when you’re walking the hallways or in class, you act appropriately. That’s always been his message to these kids.”
Laying the foundation
Before Watson ever slung a whistle around his neck to begin his football coaching career, he knew what he stood for — and what he wanted his teams to stand for. That’s why he had his core values engraved in wood and hung in the Pirates’ locker room.
“When you look at E.A.T., effort, attitude, tenacity — there were two big things, foundationally, for us. No. 1 was that — and there’s a whole thing they have to remember. There was a definition we created and the kids had to memorize it. The things we could control, we were going to make sure we mastered those. And our core values, we had them burned on wood and put up in the locker room, and those are respect, a positive attitude, sacrifice and integrity. And on the bottom of that is ‘how you do anything is how you do everything.’ We would really harp on that stuff, and I think it gave the players sort of a backbone,” Watson said. “Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and you wonder if you did a good job, if the lessons and the values that you wanted to teach really took hold, and I think they did. What made it interesting was that we started off with just freshmen and sophomores, so we were really able to consecrate the ideas in a smart, foundational way. So when that first class played their senior year they had a strong identity of who they were. I think we took pride in the program from the very beginning. The first summer we couldn’t get into the building, so we got permission to use the Egg Harbor City recreation field, where the Crusaders play. We had a local tire shop donate a bunch of tires, and we were just flipping tires. It was crazy because the kids really bought into it. You wouldn’t think the kids would be so into flipping tires and doing push-ups, but they were. That’s how we started things off. We knew we were going to play a JV schedule but we didn’t want to fall behind. That was when the foundation was laid. Those guys laid the foundation with hard work and taking pride in everything you do.”
Added McGhee, “I’ve been around football since I’ve been 10 years old, and what Watson has done in such a short period of time — he’s built something special. When you go through the interview process and talk to these other candidates — they tell you what they think about our program and what Tim as done — it just goes to show you how special it is. It’s above the Xs and Os. What he does, he has a theme for every season. It started out with E.A.T., Effort, Attitude, Tenacity; this year was ‘The Greatness Getback.’ He has all these things and he motivates kids to the point where they buy into his system.”
Watson and his coaching staff couldn’t have known what Cedar Creek would turn out to be 10 years down the line, but they knew what kind of program they wanted to have. They wanted to be the kind of program that not only competed for sectional championships every year, but also the kind that could send kids to college every year, and get more and more college coaches interested in what was going on in Egg Harbor City.
“I thought it would be pretty cool to build a program based on some principles that had guided me as an assistant, and things I was passionate about beyond football. It was a great opportunity because we didn’t have to start over, we got to build it based on certain principles and core values. I’ve been around long enough to where I liked what we had and the way the guys were working. In high school football, if you have kids who are tough and who buy in and believe in each other, you can win your share of football games, and that (first) group had that. And their senior year we ended up making a run at the South Jersey Group 2 championship,” Watson said. “That was part of the vision, trying to think big and dream big. We were fortunate enough to have guys like Duwop (Damon Mitchell) in the beginning to become a school that could produce Division I talent. That helped us from a coaching standpoint because we had (college) coaches coming through, they knew the style we played and they knew we were doing a good job in our program of developing guys. Coaches would come through regularly. The past couple of years we’d have 80 to 100 coaches come through every spring. Even the years when we didn’t have a marquee guy, they would still come through because of the reputation that we had built. And that was part of the vision, especially once we got going, was to be the best we could be. Once we got rolling, we knew we were doing alright. If you’re competitive and making runs at Group 2 in South Jersey, you’re pretty good. With teams like West Deptford and Haddonfield, you’re talking about two of the better programs in the state. We knew if we could find a niche in South Jersey Group 2 that we could be a good program. That made it an easy goal to shoot for because it was in our face. If we wanted to build a championship program we’d have to beat those types of teams.”
McGhee said he believes the success the football program has enjoyed the past 10 years has really helped give Cedar Creek an identity all its own.
“We started the school and the football and girls basketball programs really put us on the map at that point, and we’ve developed the other programs along the way. But the culture in the building starts with that fall season, it gives you that identity for the year and creates a community. Football — and girls basketball, when we first started, that gym was packed every night with that crew we had come through — but football, from a community aspect, that’s where a lot of people gather,” he said. “They come out there on a nice Saturday afternoon, you have your Pirate Burger, you sit there and watch a game, and our community has been fantastic. I tell Tim all the time, that program has really helped create that positive culture we have at Cedar Creek, and we want to keep that going. It starts with the fall season, and specifically with football.”
Watson has three children and his oldest, Kylee, is graduating from Mainland Regional High this spring and will be off to the University of Oregon to continue her outstanding basketball career. Coach Watson — who has two boys, including Hunter, who is set to start high school in the fall — said he felt like now was the right time to step away from being a head coach and let somebody else steer the Pirate ship. Still, it wasn’t an easy decision given all the young men he’s mentored in the past decade.
“That was probably the toughest part of it, was knowing you’re stopping that. I told the guys I’m always going to be there, I’m still in the building so I’ll be mentoring them in any way I can. But that was really nice to see that. That made it a little easier, to know that my staff and I were able to impact some of the young men we came in contact with. That’s really what you’re doing it for. If you’re doing it for the Xs and Os and winning, it’s a pretty shallow experience. It’s about the relationships and helping those young people grow who you’re privileged to work with,” Watson said. “I saw some really nice tweets, and in a way that let me know I’ve been doing the right thing. It put me back in tune with what my values are, and I always tried to coach with those values. And it would have been very difficult to hold those values and sort of be turning my back on places where those values were needed — probable the most — and that’s with my family. I’m glad the players and staff understood. I’m sure some people were disappointed, but they understood the decision was made for the right reason, and so many people reaching out sort of cemented the fact that it was probably time. It made me feel good that I was able to play a part in shaping young men’s lives the past 10 years.”
“(Watson stepping down) was a shock to a lot of these kids, and it was hard not being able to tell them face-to-face,” said McGhee, referring to the social distancing and quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Tim and I, and Scott (Parker), we really tried to transition this through. Tim called every kid on the team and talked to them, man-to-man, we did Zoom meetings. And even all the interviews we’ve been doing have been through Zoom meetings, I didn’t see any of the candidates face-to-face. So, it’s been interesting.”
Taking over for Watson will be James Melody, a former player at Montclair State and an assistant for Union High School the past several years. He helped lead that program to a state championship last fall. Melody said he plans to keep most of the Pirates’ coaching staff intact when he officially starts his career as the second head football coach in Cedar Creek history, which presumably will be sometime this summer.
“Tim is a guy who I really put a lot of trust in, and he talked glowingly of his staff, so it’s been easy for me to say, ‘OK, let’s get to work,’” Melody said in a recent phone interview. “Tim has been huge and I don’t think he even understands how important that has been for me. Guys can go different ways when they step down, but he’s been completely supporting me and I appreciate that.”
Now that his head coaching career at Cedar Creek is over, Watson — who remains a teacher at the high school — said he’ll remember plenty from the last 10 years. Not only the wins and the unique traditions that the Pirates were able to build, but also the lifelong relationships he fostered with players, assistant coaches, administration and fans.
“I think the thing I’ll remember most are the kids and the coaches, their faces when we were able to win that first championship. There have been some epic moments. This year, when we were able to do that ‘All the way turned up’ (fourth quarter) song against Camden, at home, the cheerleaders were all in — it was awesome. That became a really cool tradition. I think that was one of the more unique fourth-quarter traditions in South Jersey, and to have that home game for a championship, and to have it be Camden — to be beating them going into the fourth quarter, that was awesome,” he said. “But it’s more just the relationships with the kids and coaches, and seeing them in those moments so you have snapshots in your mind of celebrating after hoisting that trophy. Those moments capture all the hard work and preparation that went into it. It’s been a fun ride. We’ve had some tough losses through the years, but, man, we had some great kids, great coaches, great relationships with the community, and we had some awesome wins.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays