For the past 14 seasons, the Lawrence High School football program had a distinct look to it — the Rob Radice look.
When Radice stepped down last winter, it was time for a new look, and Nate Jones is ready to provide it. The recently appointed Cardinal varsity coach has taken over a rebuilding team that came within one victory of a state championship last year before falling to Hopewell Valley in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III title game.
Lawrence suffered heavy graduation losses from that squad, but Jones believes his new-look squad is ready to compete.
“We’ve gotten great summer workouts, there’s been a great turnout,” he said. “The kids seem to be buying in … all we can do is work hard and put a good product out on the field. I’m confident we can do that.”
Athletic director Ken Mason agrees with Jones, who was formerly the head boys track and field coach, and one of Radice’s football assistants for seven years.
“I’m happy with what I see so far,” Mason said in early August. “We’ve been working hard. We have some talent. I don’t think the cupboard is as bare as [people might think]. Everyone thought we won’t win any games. We’ve got a tradition here and I think we’ll be OK. It’s not gonna happen overnight, we know that.”
Mason said Jones is “kind of like a Pied Piper.”
“The kids all like him, they did all the seven on seven drills this summer. I think our schedule is favorable helping the team rebuild. They’re working hard for him, that’s all you can ask. He’s got a big job, and he’s circling the wagons. He’s got former Lawrence players on the staff, which you like to see,” he said.
Aside from Radice, long-time assistant Dean Mason (Ken’s brother) and Anthony Ammirata also stepped down. The only holdover assistant is Chaz Freeman.
Newcomers to the staff include Marcus D’Amelio, Derek Dubbs and LHS graduates Joel Rosario, Bayshawn Wells and Rob Wilborn. The fact that three former Cardinals were hired is no accident.
“I want guys who care about Lawrence as much as I do,” Jones said. “Guys that understand the town and understand what we’re up against and trying to do.”
Jones played defensive nose guard and offensive left guard at Deptford High School before concentrating on track at Monmouth College. After graduation he was an assistant for two years at Hamilton West before going to Lawrence. Under Radice, he was a JV coach and the defensive line coach for varsity.
“Once I became a (social studies) teacher and I started coaching football, this was always a dream,” Jones said of the head job.
Radice feels that one of Jones’ strengths is relating to the players, but is quick to point out that there is a world of difference in being an assistant coach and being the head man in football.
“It will be a learning process in a sense he’s never been a head coach before,” Radice said. “I know he did track and that will help, but to me, there is nothing quite like being a head football coach with all the responsibilities.”
But he was a very good defensive line coach, relates well to the kids, and enjoys being around the guys, Radice said.
“The kids always really liked him. He’s got a good rapport with the kids. In that aspect he will do a good job,” he said.
Radice said he told Jones not to expect perfection in his first year in charge.
“There’s definitely more involved than as an assistant. You have to go scout, you have to be at the 12th Man TD Club (dinner), you have to deal with the parents. There’s more time involved in the summer,” he said. “I told him, ‘Don’t put all this pressure on yourself, it’s definitely going to be a process.’ I know he was eager to do it, took it with arms wide open, and is looking forward to the challenge.”
Jones understands the extra demands that go with football, but feels that his duties as track coach — in which he led the Cards to three straight division titles — give him something to fall back upon.
“I was in a very collegial situation in track, where all the coaches’ opinions were valued,” he said. “I realized early on you can’t micromanage. We’re definitely doing that here with football as well. You’re only as good as your assistants. Everyone is contributing to make sure everything runs smoothly. It’s a huge job.”
Jones not only learned from being the track coach, he also learned from guys who are no longer around.
“I spent years learning from these guys. Watching different philosophies at work and learning how to actually run a program, I can’t say enough great things about Rob and guys like Ammirata and Dean Mason,” he said. “They really had a tremendous impact on not only me, but [also] many of my assistant coaches who played under them.”
It is all part of maintaining the tradition. Jones understands that tradition doesn’t have to start in ninth grade, which is why he is reaching down into the recreation levels to promote LHS football. He already has made connection with the Lawrence Lightning football program, Ken Mason noted.
“They are now going to be called Lawrence Junior Cardinals. That kind of stuff is huge. The last couple years we didn’t have a freshman team. He already has the numbers up for freshmen,” he said. “As much as we lost on varsity, we’re going to play a full freshman schedule this year.”
Lawrence is full of talented kids, Jones said, and he wants to make sure they don’t defect to area prep schools.
“We want to make sure they stay in Lawrence,” he said. “We want to make sure they stay here in Lawrence and build it up.”
And as he builds, the new coach hopes to stamp the Nate Jones look on his program.