A.J. Austin runs to recover the ball during a 44-37 loss to Lawrence on Nov. 4, 2016. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)
A.J. Austin runs to recover the ball during a 44-37 loss to Lawrence on Nov. 4, 2016. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

AJ Austin started his football career as a guard on an undersized West Windsor-Plainsboro High South freshman football team.

But as both he and the Pirates realized his greatest potential was elsewhere, his career as an interior offensive lineman ended, and another one took off — as a tight end.

“That team was short on guys and I was one of the biggest guys on that freshman team, so they originally put me at guard,” Austin said. “Blocking was fine, but I felt like I needed to have the ball in my hands to contribute to the team. I eventually made the switch over to tight end and it was fantastic.”

Over the last two seasons, Austin has grown into one of the best tight ends in the area, and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior who is being sought by numerous colleges as he begins to prepare for his final season with a developing WW-P South team. Austin also plays defensive tackle.

“He has solid technique,” said Pirates head coach Skip Edwards, pointing out that Austin had 630 yards in receiving at tight end, three touchdowns and one two-point conversion.

Austin is one reason that the Pirates have hope that they can build on a 2016 campaign that saw them break into the win column for the first time since 2014. WW-P South won two games this year and were a two-point conversion away from a third win. They ended two seasons of frustration with a 29-28 win over Hamilton West on a gutsy two-point conversion, crushed Princeton, 42-18, and nearly made it back-to-back wins before Hightstown held them off, 36-35, in overtime.

“Of course it’s more satisfying,” Austin said. “Coming off an 0-10 season, it’s always great to at least experience a win. I know everybody on the team was happy we could at least put one on the board, two was even better. We would have liked more, but the way the program was, it wasn’t just a practical step.”

The Pirates were a thin team. For two years, Austin has been playing both offense and defense. WW-P South needs him at both. This year, he was their second-leading receiver with 21 receptions for 257 yards and two touchdowns and a two-point conversion.

“It definitely extended the field (having more options). Anthony and Mike are both really good receivers down the field. They gave us a better deep threat than we had in years past.”

The Pirates racked up 2,828 total yards and ran 530 plays, both jumps over 2015. Senior quarterback Scott Cochrane threw for 1,047 yards and 11 touchdowns even though the Pirates preferred to rush the ball.

Zyion Cooper had 121 rushes for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns, and on his way to those numbers had the second-best rushing day of anyone in the state with 335 yards on the ground against Princeton. Taylor led the team with 25 receptions for 353 yards and six touchdowns and one two-point conversion.

‘I know everybody on the team was happy we could at least put one on the board, two was even better.’

“Offensively, we improved immensely,” said Edwards, who finished his fourth season at the helm. “I’m happy with the way things went offensively. We need to improve our tackling, we need to improve our special teams play. We have a lot of areas to grow in.”

Max Bruno is expected to take the place of Cochrane under center, and having Austin back for a final year is an important building block for the Pirates. He has solidified his spot on offense and defense and enjoyed seeing some changes this year within the program.

The Pirates players took the program more seriously this year. That mindset was established by the leaders of the team. “The coaches didn’t put any more pressure on us,” Austin said. “They know what we’re capable of. The captains, they knew we were better than an 0-10 season. They really expected us to work harder, to be more serious in practice, to be more serious on the sidelines, buy into what we’re doing instead of just flying through it.”

The change paid off on the field and the scoreboard where WW-P South was more competitive and won more games. That attitude is another positive that they will use in their program building.

“South football players never quit,” Edwards said. “When you go in at halftime and you’re losing 24-7 (to Lawrence), and I look at the clock and it’s around 8:48 left and we’re winning 31-30 in the fourth quarter, that’s a really big swing.”

The Pirates graduate 12 seniors from the 41 players that were on their team this year, and they know replacing that experience won’t be easy. There is hope in the township.

“The (West Windsor) Wildcats have had two teams that were in playoff championships this year,” Edwards said. “Eventually it’s going to get into the high school level. The coaches of the Wildcats are doing an outstanding job down there. Every spot on our team is wide open for our team next year.”

Austin and his teammates were back to work one week after the season ended. They know they have to get bigger, stronger and faster to make up for a lack of participation. The defense will take the lead with eight juniors who started expected to return.

“We’re going to be limited with our numbers so everyone is going to have to step up and fill any spots that they need to,” Austin said. “It will be tough, but I am optimistic. I think we can do it, we can get a few wins next year.

In addition to weight lifting, Austin will be attending a speed camp to get faster. And he will spend some of his offseason playing lacrosse. He’s also one of the top players for the WW-P South boys team.

Austin said he has played lacrosse since fourth or fifth grade, but never liked it as much as he does playing football.

“I’ve been working towards getting better at football because the other guys had a head start on me. I definitely want to play football in college,” Austin said. “We started the recruiting process the summer before this season. We were headed to prospect camps at Rutgers and Temple. We’re mainly looking at I-AA and the Patriot League, but if a I-A throws us an offer that would be fantastic.”

Austin has the size of a Division I player. He has grown — and helped the Pirates program grow as well. Nobody wants to see that end.

“I think we need to view this year as a stepping stone,” Austin said. “We can’t be content with what happened this year because obviously we had eight losses. We need to build on the two successes we had, but not forget about the losses. We need to take the next step and get a few more wins.”