When Haddonfield Memorial High School football coach Frank DeLano looks around the field tonight before his season-opening game against Paulsboro, he'll see a few new faces.
No longer there are the 13 seniors who graduated last year after leading the team to back-to-back Group 2 title games and a state championship in 2010. The list of departed includes quarterback Dan Ciemniecki, and running backs Chris Dengler and Matthew Bhaya.
Yet, even after losing so much talent, DeLano’s mindset and expectations remain the same.
Call it, the Haddonfield way.
“We are always optimistic and very excited about the way kids are practicing and continuing to get better,” DeLano said. “We were hit hard with graduation, but our goals remain the same and nothing changes. Our goals are to continue to get better each practice and each game so that by the end of the season we are playing our best football.”
While DeLano would love to have the talented players from last year’s senior class back in the fold, he is not upset in the least about the prospect of working with a new set of players. He looks at it as a challenge, and one his new players are excited to be a part of.
“Building a team is fun and exciting,” DeLano said. “This year we knew we had to create a team from the ground up. Our hope here is to develop a program, not to have just a couple of good teams. We have kids that buy in, believe in themselves and believe in each other. We just view it as it is the next person’s opportunity to step up.
"If you look at Danny (Ciemniecki), he waited for his turn and then had success. It was the same with the quarterback before him and the one before him. It’s sort of like the pecking order, you wait your turn and hopefully you step up and make the most of it.”
One of the players who DeLano will need to step up is first-year varsity quarterback Michael McLaughlin, who enters his junior year. McLaughlin has good arm strength, has shown accuracy and has the ability to escape the pocket when needed. Other skill position players who will have an expanded role this season include Michael Amberto (running back/receiver), Adam Augugliaro (running back) Teddy Stevetski (receiver), Jake Robinson (receiver) and Henry Klaus (fullback).
Of that group, only Augugliaro is a senior, so the Bulldawgs figure to feature plenty of youth.
Many of those same players will be involved on the defensive side of the football, where the Bulldawgs allowed just 69 points last season and posted seven shutouts.
The defensive unit has looked sharp in the preseason, with an emphasis on swarming to the football. The secondary does not have any seniors, so there could be a bump here or there, but the team is happy with the depth it has created. There are about 15 players that figure to rotate in, which should keep players fresh.
Although a good portion of the current roster didn’t play in last season’s Group 2 championship game loss to West Deptford, they likely still felt the sting of coming up just short of a second-straight Group 2 title. The loss may still be with some of the players, but DeLano has not used it as a point of motivation.
“I don’t think it had much to do with (the offseason preparation),” he said. “I think if you are preparing the right way in the offseason it shouldn’t matter what happened in game one or game 12. The goals still remain the same that you want to put yourself in the position to compete for a conference championship and make the playoffs. And if you are one of the two teams that compete for the state title, you have achieved your goal.”
One of the reasons DeLano can express so much confidence in players who have yet to get their feet wet at the varsity level is the cohesion he and his coaching staff have had with the community's youth football program. It took some work to get everyone headed in the right direction, but it has already paid big dividends, he said.
“I always say we are in this together,” DeLano said. “It is not one man and one person. We were fortunate enough to surround ourselves with great people at the youth level. Every team has started to implement a part of our system to help players become comfortable with it at a young age. We are grateful for the youth program. We have been successful because the groundwork has been laid.”