Losing had become routine for the Lawrence High School football team last season. The young squad showed glimpses of potential, but ended the year winless. Coming into 2016, head coach Nate Jones was often asked to compare this year’s squad to last year’s team, but he was more focused on the immense talent he now had and preferred to look ahead than behind.
Their season-opening win against Hamilton High School West was the program’s first in over a full calendar year, and they showed no inclination of regressing. They ended this season at 7-3, and the second win of the season against Steinert High School set the tone for the finish.
In that second game, Lawrence trailed 19-7 in the fourth quarter against the Spartans. Quarterback Ryan Kaelblein, in his first full season starting under center, connected with the dynamic Davon Hemingway for a 35-yard score with just over two minutes left. The score now 19-14, the Cardinals attempted an onside kick, but failed to recover. Never mind, though—a dominant defensive front led by senior middle linebacker Dan Toatley forced a quick three-and-out. Steinert punted.
With less than 90 seconds left, Kaelblein hit Myles Mitchell-White in stride on a hard slant route, and the receiver cut upfield. He went untouched for a 53-yard touchdown, and the Cardinals held a 20-19 lead in the final minute of play.
There was still no room for comfort. Steinert just needed to get into Lawrence territory to have a chance at a field goal. That wasn’t an issue by the end of the game. Toatley picked off a Steinert pass in the final seconds, and he realized he wasn’t on a losing team anymore.
“It showed who we really are: a really tough team that plays four full quarters,” Toatley said.
Much of the setting of Lawrence’s 7-3 regular season seemed scripted at points. The last time the program won a playoff game was 2013, when the current team’s graduating class were freshmen. In October, they ran onto their new turf field for the first time, ushering in a new era of Cardinals football under Jones, a third-year head coach.
Kaelblein came into the starting role after waiting his turn, and immediately produced. The defense that allowed 36 points per game in 2015 turned stalwart. The senior Toatley led the way, and at the end of the season he broke Lawrence’s regular season and career tackling records of 122 and 289, respectively.
Even moments of adversity had cliche. Riding a four-game win streak into their home opener, Lawrence was beat soundly by Ewing High School, 49-21. Jones and his team were overwhelmed by the program’s first big game in years. Watching tape later, it became clear the game should have been closer.
“Losing to Ewing woke the team up and made them say, ‘We belong in the big games and the big moments,’” Jones said.
Then, there was Kaelblein’s injury. The quarterback hurt his non-throwing shoulder with just two weeks remaining in the season, and the Cardinals’ next-in-line was Leon Jones, a freshman. In his first varsity starts, Jones beat Robbinsville and West Winsdor-Plainsboro South and ran an offense that scored a combined 71 points. Looking at late-season trouble at 5-3, the Cardinals were instead running hot into the postseason.
“He’s the total package,” Nate Jones said about his freshman passer. “He’s great under pressure, he understands the game and he’s incredibly gifted. He makes the right reads and he’s really smart. It’s always good when you have a smart quarterback.”
Leon Jones was easily the youngest player on the field in some of Lawrence’s most crucial moments, but he wasn’t the only underclassmen. Sophomore defensive lineman Jacoby Sherard and safety Jason Nalbone were returning starters. Sherard was part of a front seven that Toatley described as a group of “hitters and savages.”
“That kid is a beast, man,” Toatley said. “That was definitely a problem for teams, just looking at our front seven.”
Coach Jones even had a junior as his third captain, behind Toatley and receiver Tanner Adamczyk: Tommy Tanner, a prototype defensive end brimming with energy.
“He’s such a positive young man,” Jones said. “He’s always so fired up and ready to get his teammates going around him.”
Other juniors such as Hemingway benefited from a full season of experience during the 2015 campaign, and came back seasoned and ready to prove something, Toatley said. The Cardinals’ returning squad for 2017 showed great promise.
“If they can buy into what this senior class set, and take care of their bodies and their grades, we could be okay for quite awhile,” Jones said.
The script ran short on Lawrence this season. Even with Kaelblein returning from injury, they lost to South Plainfield 27-6 in the first round of the state playoffs. It was a heartbreaking loss, Toatley said. Most of the seniors cried in the South Plainfield visitor’s locker room afterwards, and he was among them.
“It hurt,” Toatley said. “We felt we could win. We definitely thought it could be our year. It was definitely disappointing, but so memorable.”
The night before the loss, Jones obliged to rank the team among Lawrence’s past squads. He was an assistant varsity coach for 10 years before coming into the head coach role, and he recalls a string of teams from early into his tenure that were great. He put the 2016 team up there with them.
Toatley is fielding interest from a few Division I schools right now, and hopes to get a scholarship offer. He expects to be in the weight room during the offseason, still pushing the younger classes to keep it going. At some point on the ride home from South Plainfield in his last high school game, he accepted what he and his class had done was good, and it was over.
“We’re all happy to be on the same team that changed the program around,” Toatley said. “I can leave satisfied, knowing my brothers can hold it down next year.”