For most people, the night of Oct. 2 was just a typical Friday evening, but for the players on the Robbinsville High School football team, it was much more than that. The night marked the Ravens’ first victory since winning at Riverside on Oct. 19, 2013. In between, there were 17 straight losses.
“It was something that meant more than just a win,” senior running back/linebacker Elijah McNeil said of the Ravens’ 12-6 victory over Hightstown. “It was like a point in our football careers where we finally said ‘We can do it, we can get through all the crap that swung our way. We can finally win.’ Winning was way overdue for us, for my (fellow) seniors who I really see as brothers.”
The “firsts” didn’t stop there. It was Robbinsville’s first home win since beating Burlington City on Sept. 20, 2013. They followed the Hightstown victory with two more wins, including a 20-0 triumph at Riverside that was the Ravens’ first shutout since blanking Clayton on the road, 14-0, on Oct. 30, 2011.
The three-game win streak that Robbinsville carried into the Pemberton game on Oct. 23 equaled its longest since notching three straight from Sep. 23 to Oct. 6, 2011. And it was that first one that really set the tone.
“Especially for a lot of our juniors and most of our new seniors who have never won a varsity game, or any football game for that matter,” McNeil said. “That one win and that feeling of winning and knowing how to win made it easier the next couple of games. We just love to win now. Practices are a lot more fun.”
This isn’t a surprise to the Ravens. They spoke in the preseason of how they gained valuable experience in last year’s 0-10 season under first-year coach Andrew Patterson. They got a second year with the coach, which made it the first time the seniors had the same coach for two straight years.
Things started like there would be no change, as Robbinsville lost its first three. But there was a subtle change. The losses were closer after a rash of blowouts last year. And, the Ravens weren’t intimidated.
“We told the kids it was evident to us as coaches in those three losses that we were a different team this year,” Patterson said. “We were by far the most physical team on the field in those three losses. Things just blew in the wrong direction for us.”
Patterson said a few big plays won Cinnaminson the season opener, while a near-comeback in the second game against Clayton was foiled by missed opportunities.
“But again, we were physical, we pushed around a big strong team and that opened the kids’ eyes that maybe we are a good football team,” Patterson said.
It was the same against Delran, as Robbinsville only trailed by five at halftime against a big, physical team. But Patterson said the Ravens hit harder that night.
McNeil said the reason for Robbinsville’s improved physicality is that the team goes all out, beating each other down, in its practices. They want to put that to good use.
“That’s the way it is at practice,” he said. “We only have 28 guys, there’s never anyone standing on the side, so we’re always beating the crap out of each other. When we face someone we don’t know, we’re saying ‘I’m not gonna let you beat the crap out of me after I’ve had it given to me all week.’”
It finally turned around against a Hightstown team that was 2-1 at the time, when quarterback Andrew Aromando scored on two late runs to wipe out a 6-0 deficit.
That not only started the Ravens’ win streak, it started McNeil on a tear. He rushed for 130 yards against the Rams, and he followed that with 187 yards and three touchdowns against Bordentown and 137 yards and two TDs at Riverside.
McNeil, however, wanted nothing to do with personal glory.
“I just go in to do my job,” he said. “I can’t really do it without my line in front of me, and without me running, they have no one to block for. It’s really a team effort. I can’t say much more about it than that. I’m just trying to do the best I can do.”
The line features, from left to right, Matt Spiegel, J.P Suttile, Ryan Bondoc—“who has not missed a block at center all season,” according to Patterson—Derek Sander, Caedan Wallace and tight ends Paul Hildebrand and Jake Hellman.
Also getting credit from Patterson are his fullbacks, Anthony Lattera and Jordan Hellman, for their blocking. Lattera rushed for 80 against Bordentown as the Ravens ran for a school-record 400 yards.
“In the early part of season we thought we’d be a 50/50 (run/pass) team and as we saw the games unfold, we realized the offensive line run blocks better than pass blocks,” Patterson said. “They’ve been lights out blocking with Elijah or whoever else is back there.”
And while Patterson has faith in all his backs, McNeil was the man at mid-season.
“He’s very good at doing what he does,” the coach said. “He’s a hard runner, straight downhill. He has the ability to get outside if he has to. We were expecting that, he’s a good back. I think we have three or four good backs, it just kind of slowly swayed that way.”
McNeil feels the line has done exactly what it needs to do in order to spark the run game.
“Once the game starts rolling, they just dominate their match-ups,” he said. “They block for at least three seconds, and that’s all me and the other backs really need to get the three, five, eight yards we need. They do what they can and it works.”
McNeil also plays linebacker on defense and said that posting the team’s first shutout in five years made for a relaxing Monday.
“The film session was nice,” he said. “We didn’t get yelled out from the linebacker and defensive line standpoint. They went negative rushing.”
Helping lead the defense are the triplet tandem of Taylor, Kyle and Jared Twamley in the secondary, but it’s another big team effort.
“The communication is really key for our secondary,” McNeil said. “A big factor is our rush defense. Our guys on the defensive line have been doing very well. Our ends are staying contained, our tackles are hitting the gaps they need to hit. Most of the time they’ve been making so many plays that me and the other linebackers don’t have a chance to make plays.”
It all added up to the Ravens’ best six-game start since opening the 2011 season at 4-2 before finishing 5-5.
“We saw flashes last year, but we knew all along that this year we should be in every football game,” Patterson said. “I told the kids that in our first three games this year, as opposed to last year, even though we lost, we were in the game. We were very handily blown out in all three of those games last year. I told them there’s no better feeling as a coach than when you’re still trying to scheme them up in the fourth quarter of the game.”
And when those schemes lead to wins, it’s that much better.