On a hot, late summer afternoon in September, Kevin Hennelly sat in the West Morris Central Wolfpack football team’s locker room and hesitated before answering a question.
The query posed to the head coach, entering his 16th season as the program’s leader, was seeking to find who would fill the enormous void left in the offensive backfield; a portion of the team that would be instrumental in any kind of hunt for a championship.
Three months later the Wolfpack is set to finish its hunt, as it prepares for a North II, Group IV state sectional title game against the Warren Hills Regional High School Blue Streaks Saturday, Dec. 8 at Rutgers University at 10 a.m.
. The Wolfpack kicked off the season with a 34-7 drubbing of Morris Knolls, but held sub-.500 records throughout the season until it took down Vernon Township in early November, a turning point in the season according to Hennelly.
“That’s when we got healthy,” Hennelly said. “That was when we really began clicking.”
On that September afternoon in the locker room, just two days before kickoff, Hennelly announced the team would replace three consecutive years of stand-out running backs with a carousel of athletes sharing the load.
Throughout the season, the Wolfpack has seen seniors Austin Roland and Adam Caruso lead a running back-by-committee attack, which has had a blocking path to be envious of.
Hennelly wouldn’t pinpoint a standout player or two that helped get the team where it is, rather, applauded the efforts of the guys in the trenches.
“The lines, both offensively and defensively, that’s been the strong part of the team,” the coach said. “When they go we go. If they struggle we tend to struggle.”
For the offensive line, widely known as The Hogs, blocking and protection is created by seniors Kenneth Curet, captain Tyler Amandos and Brown University-bound captain Rob Hughes.
And in a championship game, it’s those seniors that will play a vital role in leading the team to victory, both physically and mentally.
In the past two seasons, the Wolfpack has fallen on its home field in the semifinal round of the playoffs, first in 2010 to eventual sectional champions Morristown Colonials, and in 2011 to eventual sectional champions Parsippany Hills Vikings.
This year’s seniors were freshman when the 2009 Wolfpack took down Passaic Valley High School for the North II, Group III state sectional title. While they didn’t play, they were suited up for the occasion for the purposes of learning.
“We had (the freshmen) on the sidelines so they could see what it takes to win a championship,” said assistant coach Henry Frayne. “These guys have been in the playoffs all three years, so the experience is definitely there. The seniors have stepped up during the playoffs.”
High school football fans know what a championship run is like. The school is buzzing, the players are focused more than ever. Coaches spend countless hours game-planning and pouring over videos of the opposition.
For the seniors, this is the last go around, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The game is scheduled for the unorthodox time of 10 a.m., nearly an hour away. But that won’t matter one bit.
“It could be 10 a.m., 10 p.m., whatever, these guys are ready to play,” Hennelly said. “Sure, we’d love to be playing at 7 (p.m.) in the Valley, but these guys are ready for anything.”
The number four-seeded Wolfpack won’t be taking number six seeded Blue Streaks lightly, despite the lesser record.
“They’ve got some really athletic guys at wide receiver and running back, and at safety on defense,” Frayne said. “It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere, but it’s still a football game and we need to make our plays.”
In the matchup with Warren Hills, just like the 26-0 semifinal win against top-seeded Irvington last week, looks can be deceiving.
“The win against (Irvington) was closer than the box score showed,” Hennelly said. “We were able to capitalize on mistakes. Warren Hills is better than their record. They’re well-coached and are very talented.”
But the Wolfpack is ready to heed the challenge, Hennelly said about his group.
“This has been a very enjoyable group for our staff to work with,” he said. “They get along well, and they do a good job on game day.”
The last time West Morris Central and Warren Hills faced off in the state playoffs, the Blue Streaks won a nail-biter, 21-14, at Wolfpack Stadium in December 2000.
A decade later, the Wolfpack finally has its chance at revenge–and a seventh championship.